Sunshine Week
Phil Hands

Is Wisconsin tough on doctors who make big mistakes, costing people their lives?

No.

Is soil at the former Royster-Clark plant on Madison’s East Side still contaminated?

Yes.

Was a Waupun prison guard suspended for making a lynching joke about President Barack Obama?

Yes.

Was a UW-Madison football player really acting in self-defense — as the athletic department contended — during a fight last fall at his off-campus residence?

No. (He actually threw the first punch.)

State Journal reporters were able to answer these questions and many more during the last year, thanks to Wisconsin’s open records law. Access to government documents and meetings are key to keeping institutions accountable and the public well informed.

This week the Wisconsin State Journal, news organizations across the country and other First Amendment advocates will celebrate government transparency laws at the local, state and federal levels. Sunshine Week is an annual effort to highlight the importance of open government protections to a strong democracy and society.

It’s not just journalists who exercise their freedom to scour government data. Ordinary citizens file far more open records requests than reporters do. The public also attends countless government meetings, which can only be closed for very specific reasons that must be publicly disclosed.

Sheila Plotkin of McFarland is a great example of a Wisconsin citizen looking for answers. She uses Wisconsin’s open records law to collect and tally on her websitewe-the-irrelevant.org — citizen feedback sent to state lawmakers about controversial legislation.

Her painstaking work last year showed lawmakers disregarded overwhelming opposition to the dismantling of the Government Accountability Board. Plotkin won an award from the Freedom of Information Council for her efforts.

State lawmakers tried to exempt themselves from Wisconsin’s strong transparency requirements last year, springing the changes on the eve of the July 4 holiday weekend. The shameful attempt to hide the public’s business only failed because of swift, diverse and loud objections.

Citizens must stay on guard to defend their right to know. The State Journal most definitely will on behalf of our readers.

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