In Transparency Lawsuits, The University of Wisconsin Ends Up On The Losing Side

Mar 13, 2018

Credit J. Albert Bowden II / Flickr

It’s Sunshine Week, and that’s not a crack about the weather. The annual event is an effort led by news organizations, that seeks to inform people about their right to access public information. It’s a right that has had many enemies - both historically and currently - but it’s also a right that has endured many tests.

As a young journalist in Madison, David Pritchard found himself testing the strength of this right. Pritchard is now a journalism professor at UW-Milwaukee, but in the 1970s he was on the opposing side of the state's university system when he sued UW-Madison for access to public records.

"I asked for records of faculty outside activities - basically faculty consulting activities, consulting for corporations that all faculty members who did consulting were required to file. And the university resisted that, Madison campus resisted, saying that this would [have] a chilling effect on research, on teaching, and it would violate academic freedom, and it was the equivalent of McCarthyism," says Pritchard. 

He won his case against the university, and decades later he set out to see how these kinds of lawsuits against the University of Wisconsin progress in courts around the state. 

"One of the nice things about Wisconsin's public records law: if you make a request and the public agency says 'no,' and you go to court to get the records and you win, your legal fees get paid."

Pritchard and his co-author John Anderson - who is the winner of a similar lawsuit - analyzed every public-records lawsuit filed against the University of Wisconsin system during the last four decades. They were surprised to find that in the last 40 years, the UW system hasn’t won a single case where they sought to conceal these records.

And, these court cases can come at a hefty price. "One of the nice things about Wisconsin's public records law: If you make a request and the public agency says 'no,' and you go to court to get the records and you win, your legal fees get paid." 

In Pritchard's case back in the 1970s that meant the university had to pay more than $11,000 for his legal fees. He says that as legacy news media has lost some of its financial power, more "partisan advocacy groups" have been utilizing these sunshine laws more frequently and they always win their cases.

"It's really important for citizens of Wisconsin to understand that they have a right to attend the meetings of public bodies. They have a right of access to most public documents."

Pritchard says Sunshine Week is a good opportunity to bring light to the importance of transparency laws and encourage non-journalists to learn about their right to know what their government is doing. 

He explains, "It’s really important for citizens of Wisconsin to understand that they have a right to attend the meetings of public bodies. They have a right of access to most public documents. And if you care about your government - why things happen the way they happen, you can learn an awful lot about these things."

Pritchard and Anderson's full report will be published later this year by the Journal of College and University Law.