Only with an informed electorate can Wisconsin have a representative and accountable government. It is our State’s policy that everyone is entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government, and that providing such information is an essential function of our government. Based on a presumption of maximal public access, denial of records is generally considered to be contrary to public interest absent limited exceptions.
In this spirit, Wisconsin’s Open Records Law states that any person can request a record from an authority that has custody of that record. An authority is defined as any government entity, elected official, court, quasi-governmental corporation. That request does not need to take any particular form or even be in writing. Nor does the request need to disclose the identity of the requester or the reason for the request.
Records can take many forms, including written, drawn, printed, spoken, visual, audio, or electromagnetic information. Narrowly construed exceptions include drafts and notes that prepared for the originator's use; copyrighted, patented trade secrets; certain records with personal or employee information, records with confidential information subject to attorney-client privilege; and attorney work product.
An authority with custody of that record must respond to a request "as soon as practicable and without delay," a timeline that is defined in Department of Justice guidelines as approximately 10 days. If an authority denies all or part of that request, it must provide that denial in writing and include a specific reason for the denial. The authority that has custody of those records may impose a fee for supplying those records, but it may not charge more than "the actual, necessary, and direct cost" reproduction or transcription of the records. In the case where an authority withholds a record or delays access or charges unauthorized fees, the requester may seek relief by submitting a request to the district attorney or bringing a mandamus action in court.
Midwest Environmental Advocates, our partners and the general public rely constantly on records and other information from our government. The public has a right to know how government is spending taxpayer dollars and how elected officials are exercising power granted by the people. For all of these reasons, the Open Records Law was designed to protect every citizen's right to access and transparency.
Resources Related to this Issue
Published by the State of Wisconsin's Department of Justice, this overview of public records law is geared for public officials and members of the public to understand their obligations and rights under public records laws.
This handbook discusses the DNR’s administrative hearings and provides general information about the different types of hearings, how you can request a hearing, and what you should expect if you decide to participate in a hearing.
This Midwest Environmental Advocates tool kit provides insight and information on how to establish local ordinances that can limit the detrimental impacts that big box stores can have on communities and the environment.
Article 9, Section 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution lays out Wisconsin's Public Trust Doctrine. This is a body of common and statutory law that says that the state holds the the waters of the state in trust for public purposes. This extremely important right, guaranteed by our state Constitution, is the foundation of water law in the state of Wisconsin.
A Midwest Environmental Advocates publication regarding Wisconsin's livestock facility siting law.
Most recently updated in 2007, this tool-kit is a resource for Wisconsin citizens who are seeking to understand public access to government meetings and decision-making practices.
This toolkit provides citizens with a basic understanding of Wisconsin's public records law and how you can use that law to monitor government decisions and hold our government accountable.
This is a basic, easy-to-follow guide on how to organize your neighbors to take action regarding a problem in your community.
This 2005 report provides policy recommendations to shape the future of water conservation in Wisconsin.