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Should Politicians' Text Messages Be Secret?

There is a move among Wisconsin lawmakers to keep their text messages secret and exempt from the state open records law. g-stockstudio/iStockPhoto)
There is a move among Wisconsin lawmakers to keep their text messages secret and exempt from the state open records law. g-stockstudio/iStockPhoto)
December 23, 2015

MADISON, Wis. - Watchdog groups in Wisconsin are opposing a move to exempt the text messages of elected officials from the state's open records law.

The Republican leadership in the legislature says texts should not be subject to the law because they are "transitory communications," and therefore don't need to be archived as public record. Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, disagrees.

"This is a new concept that they invented, I think out of whole cloth, to try once again to keep the public from knowing the business of state government," says Heck. "And it's just utterly ridiculous and ought to be rejected out of hand."

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council agrees with Heck, saying text messages made by elected officials should be kept as part of the public record. Heck calls this the latest in a series of attacks on the Wisconsin Open Records Law of 1917. Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to pass such a law. The most recent revision of the landmark legislation came in 1981.

While text messaging wasn't around in '81, Heck and others say the intent of the law is quite clear.

"If you carve out an exception for text messages, then that's where many more communications would be made," says Heck. "Because government officials, if there's something they don't want people to know, they're going to try and find the area that's not covered under the open records law. So, this absolutely needs to be part and parcel of the existing state open records law."

According to Heck, people really need to pay attention to what he calls constant attempts to close state government to public scrutiny, and says concerned citizens should say something about it to their elected officials.

"We need to guard against these types of attacks on transparency," says Heck. "I don't think most people in Wisconsin know they're occurring, and if they did know, I'm sure most wouldn't support them."

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI