School districts across the state are being asked to release the names of teachers who called in sick during protests in February at the Capitol, a move that led to closures for a day or more in many districts.
It's unclear how many of the state's 424 districts received requests, but several conservative groups have made public records requests for teacher names. Most districts have released them.
But the Madison School District denied several requests, saying the release could risk the safety of teachers and students, and disrupt morale and the learning environment in schools.
And the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, used a similar argument in asking a La Crosse County judge to quash the release of teacher names in the La Crosse and Holmen districts.
The judge recently blocked the release of names in Holmen and may rule soon on the La Crosse case.
The issue pits the public's right to information about how their government works against a perceived threat to public safety, said Madison attorney Bob Dreps, an open records expert who has handled cases for the State Journal.
Under the state's open records law, there is a presumption that government records are open to the public. But in some cases, the governmental agency may apply a balancing test to determine if there is a stronger argument for secrecy.
"The strength of their justification depends on how persuasive this threat of disruption is," Dreps said of districts that don't release the names. "That there's heated rhetoric over the dispute over the budget repair bill doesn't justify secrecy."
WEAC spokeswoman Christina Brey said the issue has distracted from more serious matters, such as the governor's proposal to cut more than $800 million in education funding.
"It's really unfortunate seeing educators being demonized for their decision" to attend the protests, Brey said.
Madison has safety concerns
Larry Gamble, a retired pilot and Tea Party member from Franklin, estimates he filed about 50 records requests, including one for the names of Madison teachers who called in sick.
But legal counsel Dylan Pauly said the district doesn't want to release the names after board members and administrators received "a number of threats" against themselves and district employees.
In the most serious incident, a parent was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct for a voice message he allegedly left on a middle school's general mailbox.
According to a police report, the parent was upset about school being closed and left a message saying, "I'm gonna come down there and punch you guys right in the face."
In an interview, Pauly said the parent also sent an email that stated: "Let those disgusting people join the unemployment lines like the rest of us who would kill for the deal they get."
"In my analysis of the safety issues, I think we probably have the most legitimate case" for withholding the names, Pauly said. "We were the only district shut for four days, so the anger and the rhetoric is very heated here."
But Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank that also requested the names from Madison, said taxpayers have the right to know which teachers left the classroom to protest.
"No one really believes that someone would use the information to do something that crosses the line," Healy said. "To use that logic to prevent the releasing of the names is a stretch, at best."
Area districts give names freely
Several districts contacted by the State Journal — including DeForest, Middleton-Cross Plains, Mount Horeb, Stoughton, Verona and Waunakee — said they received multiple requests for the names and released them without objection. They did so even after notifying the local teachers union — something Dreps said they weren't required to do.
But in the La Crosse and Holmen cases, WEAC filed an injunction to prevent the release of names after both school districts notified their local teachers unions.
In arguing against disclosure, WEAC lawyer Jina Jonen compared the danger of releasing the names to a case in which a prisoner requested the names, home addresses and phone numbers of all prison employees - even though requesters didn't ask for personal addresses and phone numbers, information typically protected from disclosure under the records law.
"Should the names be released, it is highly likely the teachers will be subjected to harassment and/or retaliation by members of the public who disagree with the teachers attending the rallies in Madison," Jonen wrote.
La Crosse Circuit Court Judge Elliott Levine granted the Holmen injunction, saying the safety risk outweighed disclosure, though neither the school district nor Gamble, who requested the names, submitted arguments supporting release. The La Crosse case remains in the court.
Gamble said he couldn't afford to hire an attorney to argue for release. Most of the districts supplied the names he requested without question, he said.
"I had to laugh that I'm a catalyst for a lawsuit against the school district," Gamble said. "It was just kind of hilarious, all the things they assumed. It was just an immediate leap to, ‘He's with a Tea Party group, he's got some underlying motive for doing this and he's going to take out a full-page ad in a local newspaper to embarrass our teachers group.'"
Under the state's open records law, requesters do not have to identify themselves or their motives when they ask for information.
Even if Gamble intended to publish the names, that wouldn't necessarily constitute a threat to the teachers, said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
"Unfortunately, if a teacher participates in an action and it becomes known and a parent wants to write a note that they should be fired, they're going to have to grin and bear it," Lueders said.
"If they say, 'I'm going to come to your house and kill your children,' that's different."