Wis. AG issues opinion on press access to Web site run by elected official‏

Nick Rees Dec. 23, 2009, 4:29pm

J.B. Van Hollen (R)

MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - An informal opinion has been issued by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen that concludes that the contents of a Google group Web site called "Making Salem Better," maintained by the Salem Town Chair, is a public record and that materials from the website should be made available for inspection upon request.

Gail A. Peckler-Dziki, a reporter for the Wetosha/Paddock Lake Report, requested the opinion. Information was provided by Peckler-Dziki that indicated Linda Valentine, Salem Town Chair, was maintaining the website for the purpose of discussing the town issues with other members of the group. Access to the Web site, however, was declined for the newspaper.

Van Hollen's opinion stated that the Wisconsin Public Records law applied to the website as it was created and kept by an authority - an elected official - and the contents of the site were connected to the authority's official purpose or function pursuant to section 19.32(2) of the Wisconsin statutes. Van Hollen stressed, however, that the opinion was only limited to the factual situation presented in the request and that it did not necessarily apply to information that was personal or otherwise protected by First Amendment or privacy concerns.

In finding that the "Making Salem Better" website constituted a public record, Van Hollen did not find that the Town Chair was required to provide electronic access or group membership to the newspaper. The public records law, Van Hollen said, grants only a right to inspect the Web site. The "right to inspect" covers only having access and copies of record information but does not necessarily grant the right to participate in the Web site's discussion.

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