- Associated Press - Thursday, August 7, 2014

Green Bay Press-Gazette, Aug. 6

Redaction compromise promotes greater transparency

Those who believe in transparency and open government received good news in the last week when the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities negotiated an agreement to end the practice of redacting certain information in arrest and accident reports.

They have come up with a vehicle/driver information request form for the media and public to use when seeking information protected by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. Also, the league encouraged municipalities to use the form “to allow for release of law enforcement reports without redaction of DPPA-related information” while municipal and media groups seek further clarification from the appeals court.

Central to the case is the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which requires states obtain consent before they release information obtained from the Division of Motor Vehicles, such names, addresses and makes of vehicles.

The controversy arose in August 2012 after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Illinois man’s lawsuit that the DPPA was violated when a parking ticket listing personal information was left on his vehicle’s windshield.

Legal counsel for Wisconsin counties and municipalities began advising their law enforcement agencies to redact that information from reports for fear of violating the DPPA.

It was a unique reaction because no other state started this practice in the wake of the ruling. In fact, it was a hassle for many law enforcement agencies, which had to spend more time blacking out information on reports released to the public and media.

We applaud those groups that reached the compromise in the name of transparency. Sure, it helps us in our newsgathering efforts, but it affects everyday people, like the Sheboygan Falls woman who spent 13 days trying to get the name of the driver who crashed into her daughter’s car, and it removes the accidental anonymity for those who break the law, like the driver who was traveling 80 mph in a 25-mph zone and struck and killed a woman last year in Wausau.

This information should be public for the good of society, not to protect those who cause serious injury, and sometimes death.

But the practice of redaction hasn’t ended yet as municipalities and counties are having their lawyers go over the compromise.

In the meantime, it’s time for state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to weigh in on the matter and reaffirm an informal opinion he issued in 2008.

He wrote, in part, that personal information “obtained from the state DMV and contained in law enforcement records may be provided in response to a public records request unless the public records balancing test or statutory prohibitions other than the DPPA preclude disclosure.”

In other words, the presumption should be that this information is public and that only under certain situations would it be private, not the other way around, as it is now.

We’d like Van Hollen to use his statewide standing to clear up the matter and erase any confusion over the agreement reached by the WNA and the league. It would help speed up the process of getting back to full disclosure of information that the public is entitled to under an open, democratic form of government.

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