Wisconsin Open Records Law

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The Open Records Law is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Open Records Law was first enacted into law in 1982[1].

The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law sets out which meetings of which government bodies must be open to the public, the type and timing of public notice about the meetings and the requirements for public participation.

To learn more about how to make a public records request in this state, please see: Wisconsin FOIA procedures

Relevant legal cases

See also: Court cases with an impact on state FOIA

Here is a list of lawsuits in Wisconsin. For more information go the page or go to Wisconsin sunshine lawsuits.
(The cases are listed alphabetically. To order them by year please click the icon to the right of the Year heading)

Lawsuit Year
Armada Broadcasting, Inc. v. Stirn 1994
Cavey v. Walrath 1999
Hathaway v. Green Bay School District 1984
Hempel v. City of Baraboo 2005
International Union, UAW v. Gooding 1947
Lautenschlager v. Gunderson 2008
Linzmeyer v. D.J. Forcey 2002
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. Department of Administration 2008
Newspapers Inc. v. Breier 1979
Sands v. Whitnall School District 2008
State ex rel. Newspapers Inc. v. Showers 1987
State of Wisconsin v. Beaver Dam Area Development Corporation 2008
WIREdata, Inc. v. Village of Sussex 2008
Watton v. Hegerty 2008
Wisconsin Newspress, Inc. v. School District of Sheboygan Falls 1996
Woznicki v. Erickson 1996
Zellner v. Cedarburg School District 2007
Zellner v. Herrick 2009

Proposed changes


See also:Proposed reforms in state sunshine laws, 2011

We do not have any legislation for Wisconsin in 2011.


See also:Proposed reforms in state sunshine laws, 2010

We do not have any legislation for Wisconsin in 2010.

Wisconsin's transparency report card

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council audited compliance with Wisconsin's laws in September and October 2008. 318 records requests for basic documents were submitted in 65 Wisconsin counties. The audit found that 10% of the time, local governments denied or ignored the requests. Another 20% of the time, those requesting the records were required to identify themselves or explain to the records custodian why they wanted the records, in violation of Wisconsin's laws.[2]

A 2008 study, BGA - Alper Integrity Index, conducted by the Better Government Association and sponsored by Alper Services, ranked Wisconsin #17 in the nation with an overall percentage of 56.60%.[3]

A 2007 study, Graded state responsiveness to FOI requests, conducted by BGA and the NFOIC, gave Wisconsin 41 points out of a possible 100, a letter grade of "F", and a ranking of 39 out of the 50 states.[4]

A 2002 study, Freedom of Information in the USA, conducted by IRE and BGA, ranked Wisconsin's law as the 20th best in the country, giving it a letter grade of "C-".[5]

Features of the law

Sunshine variations Compare States: Sunshine variations
Click on the heading to compare your state's law to other state's transparency laws.

=== Declared legal intention=== The purpose of the Wisonsin law states that, "In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them. Further, providing persons with such information is declared to be an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information. To that end, ss. 19.32 to 19.37 shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied."[6]

The introduction to Wisconsin's statute says, "[A]ll persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them."[7]

=== What records are covered?=== Wisconsin defines record as any document, regardless of physical form, that "has been created or is being kept by" an agency.[8]


Notable exceptions include but are not limited to:

  • Draft notes and other preparatory material[9]
  • Personally identifiable information that would pose a threat to the individual identified
  • Trade Secrets
  • Personal information of employees
  • Security information
  • Financial identifying information

However, Wisconsin law dictates that departments separate exempt from non-exempt material within the same source and release non-exempt material.[10]

==== Deliberative process====

=== What agencies are covered?=== Agencies include all branches of government at both the state and local levels and any organization that receives 50% or more of its funding from public money.[11]

It is important to note that Wisconsin law requires all departments to post their methods for filing an open records request. The legislature and local government are exempted from this statute.[12]

==== Legislature====


The legislature falls under the definition of public body found at Wisconsin statute 19.32 and is subject to the Wisconsin Open Records Law. However, the legislature is exempt from the law requiring departments to post methods for filing a records request.[13]

==== Privatized governmental agencies==== Wisconsin law incorporates two different tests to determine if private agencies are considered public bodies and subject to the law. The first strict test states that all private entities which are funded by public bodies and which perform public health services are considered public bodies and subject to the law. The second test is a five factor test which considers all 5 factors but does not require any specific factor to be present. The factors include:

  • The private agencies funding
  • Whether or not the private agency was created by a public body.
  • Whether or not the private agency presents itself as a public body.
  • Whether or not the private agency is controlled by a public body.
  • Whether or not the private agency performs a public function.[14]

==== Public universities====

Status: Presumed Open
Popular Exemptions
ResearchDonorsExaminationsCourse Materials

The definition of public body presumably includes public universities within the state.

=== Who may request records?=== In general, "any requester has a right to inspect any record." (Wis. Stat. 19.35(1)(a)). However, people who are incarcerated and people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution are restricted in their rights of access to public documents.[15]

Contrary to the law in some other states, individuals who are litigants in a pending lawsuit with a governmental agency do not lose any of their rights as requestors with respect to documents they want from that agency.

Persons that are incarcerated can only request records involving themselves or their immediate families[16]. Those involuntarily committed cannot ask for records.

=== Must a purpose be stated?=== Wisconsin's statute--Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(i)--says, "Except as authorized under this paragraph, no request . . . may be refused because the person making the request is unwilling . . . to state the purpose of the request."[17]

However, in Hempel v. City of Baraboo, a 2005 decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the court said, "In fact, requesters under the Open Records Law need not identify themselves, or state a purpose for their request...When performing a balancing test, however, a records custodian almost inevitably must evaluate context to some degree."[18] This seems to suggest that a records custodian has some leeway to inquire about the requester and the purpose of the request since it would not be possible "to evaluate context to some degree"--which the court suggests is a prerogative of the records custodian--in the absence of any information about the requester and his or her motivations.

In 2008, the West Bend School District denied a records request partly on the basis of what it believed about the requester and her motivations.[19][20]

=== How can records be used?=== Somewhat enigmatically, the statute says, "A requester shall comply with any regulations or restrictions upon ... use of information which are specifically prescribed by law."[21]

=== Time allowed for response===


The Wisconsin law does not specify a time requirement for request responses. However, requests may be denied orally. If the person making the request desires a written denial, then he or she must make that known within 5 days.[22].

The Wisconsin Department of Justice has a official policy in place that requires the most basic open records requests to have a response within ten business days[23].

Fees for records

==== Copy costs:==== Wisconsin law allows for fees to be charged to cover the cost of the duplication of public records. Waivers are allowed, only if the material requested is in the public interest.[24]

==== Search fees:==== Wisconsin law also allows agencies to charge for the labor involved in the search if the cost in labor to the department is over $50.[25]

=== Role of the Attorney General===

Attorney General of Wisconsin

If an individual's request for access to public records is denied by a public agency or state governmental official, under § 19.37(1) of the Wisconsin Statutes, this person may "submit a written request to the district attorney of the county where the record is located or to the Attorney General requesting that an action for mandamus be brought asking the court to order release of the record to the requester."[26]

Open meetings

The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law states that all meetings of public bodies to discuss public business are open to members of the public.

Notable requests

In April 2011, the MacIver Institute paid $1,800 for the first round of public record requests asking for all communications about the budget repair bill from Dane County legislators.[27] The elected officials include Parisi, Pocan, Risser, Erpenbach, Roys and Miller, the Madison Mayor, the Dane County Executive and the Secretary of State.

See also

External links