Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

menu
Home » Issues & Actions » Issues

Issues

Government

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.

For more Frequently Asked Questions about how Wisconsin's open records and open meetings laws work, please visit our Open Government FAQ page.

Resources Related to this Issue

Office of Open Government Advisory - Fees Schedule Wisconsin Public Records Law

August 8, 2018 The above like provides fee schedules and costs associated with Wisconsin Public Records Law

Office of Open Government Advisory - Charging Fees Under the Wisconsin Public Records Law

August 8, 2018 This fee advisory release is being issued to notify all interested persons about permissible fee practices under the public records law.

FOIA Online for tracking information requests

Submit FOIA requests for most federal agencies through FOIAonline. Registered users can track requests’ progress, communicate with the agency and receive notifications on status.

Citizen’s Guide on Using FOIA

A Citizen’s Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records, a resource created by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

U.S. Department of Justice Freedom of Information Act Guide

In-depth guide to the procedural requirements, exemptions, and litigation considerations in federal laws that ensure the rights of the public to access federal agency records.

MuckRock collaborative news

A non-profit, collaborative news site that brings together journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens to request, analyze, and share government documents, making politics more transparent and democracies more informed. MuckRock's website provides a repository of hundreds of thousands of pages of original government materials, information on how to file requests, and tools to make the requesting process easier.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

A nonprofit watchdog group working for clean, open and honest government and reforms that make people matter more than money in politics. Website's news section has regular updates on the influence of campaign donors over legislative agendas. WDC also maintains a searchable, digital Campaign Finance Database of campaign contributors to candidates for state office in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

Wisconsin's Freedom of Information Council supports journalists and citizens in public information requests. WFIC seeks to safeguard access to information that citizens must have to act responsibly in a free and democratic society.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Website to help journalists with Freedom of Information Act Requests from the national group whose mission is to protect the right to gather and distribute news; to keep government accountable by ensuring access to public records, meetings and courtrooms; and to preserve the principles of free speech and unfettered press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Open Records Requests - federal/FOIA, state

Midwest Environmental Advocates is committed to helping people who want to ensure an open and clean government. Clean and open government depends on public access to government records. We help people get access to those records to better understand how our laws are made and enforced. This page serves as a record of our recent open records requests under state and Freedom Of Information Act laws on behalf of citizens or our law center.

Wisconsin DOJ Public Records Law Compliance Outline

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.

Open Meetings Law Tool-Kit: How the Open Meetings Law Can Help You Protect Your Community

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.

Public Records Law Tool Kit: A Guide to Wisconsin’s Public Records Law

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.