What they said: Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

Legislators preying on transparency

The Janesville Gazette

Winding its way through the Legislature is a bill that would undermine this state’s commitment to transparent government.

It must be stopped, and we’re asking readers to contact their legislators and voice their objection to AB70 and its companion bill in the Senate, SB42.

The stakes are high for people who depend on newspapers to provide information about government proceedings. If adopted, the bill would eliminate requirements to publish meeting minutes in newspapers and allow local governments to put these documents on their websites — in other words, mostly hidden from public view.

This is a classic case of the foxes guarding the henhouse. In the past, these foxes knew they were unwelcome guests. But in recent years, the foxes have become emboldened, believing the public no longer pays attention to their schemes.

That’s not true, of course.

When legislators tried in 2015 to gut open records laws through legislative maneuvering just before the Fourth of July weekend, newspapers cried foul. Legislators quickly backtracked, but the saga was a reminder that the public must remain vigilant in monitoring its henhouse.

At one time, legislators went to Madison with a clear understanding of their mission — to serve the people. But for many reasons, legislators have become increasingly susceptible to the influence of special interests, which often cleverly disguise their agendas as acting in the public’s interest.

In concocting AB70 and SB42, lawmakers cuddled up to local government officials. These two groups would never admit it, but they both stand to benefit from keeping the public in the dark. Operating in the open can be a headache and hurdle to re-election. When constituents know what their government is doing, they have this annoying tendency to demand accountability.

Some legislators claim AB70 and SB42 will save taxpayers because governments no longer would have to pay to publish meeting proceedings. But in the long run, less transparency for the sake of saving tax dollars backfires. Whenever government officials start to feel unaccountable, they spend even more tax dollars on perks that benefit themselves and their friends because they stop feeling concerned that the public will find out. Publishing meeting minutes and other legal notices in newspapers keeps officials honest, or at least a little more honest than they would otherwise be.

At this juncture, can we really afford policies that encourage dishonesty and validate the foxes’ pillaging of open government?

Current publication requirements maintain a strong link between government and the public, and it would be a grave mistake to downplay this link’s significance.

Unless you believe that your local government is entitled to do as it pleases, get in touch with your legislator. Tell him or her that AB70 and SB42 should die quickly, preferably while still in committee.

Don’t bury public notices in bureaucracy

Wisconsin State Journal

The Green Bay City Council recently discussed spending $80,000 to repair or replace a 9/11 monument that’s in “horrible condition.”

The Holmen Village Board in La Crosse County approved $34,085 for two pickups, $4,500 for a digital camera, and $2,600 for a radar gun.

The Beaver Dam School Board committed $75,000 for Chromebooks for staff.

The DeForest Village Board approved an agreement with Dane County to reconstruct Highway CV.

All of that information — and so much more — appeared Thursday and Friday in meeting minutes published by local governments in local newspapers.

You might not care about some or any of those details if you don’t live in those communities. But if you did, those decisions could significantly affect you and your family.

That’s why school districts, counties and municipalities are required by state law to publish — at a discount — the minutes of their meetings in their local newspapers. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association also publishes the notices and a slew of other community announcements on its searchable and free website: wisconsinpublicnotices.org.

The notices are a public service to the hundreds of thousands of citizens who read local newspapers in print and online across Wisconsin, as well as anyone who is curious and has access to the internet.

The result of wide dissemination of this public information — where it is easy to find — is a more involved and knowledgeable citizenry that knows what’s going on with public money and policy.

Unfortunately, Gov. Scott Walker and some misguided state lawmakers want to hide much of this information where it’s hard for voters to find. They are pushing changes in the state budget and separate legislation that would bury meeting minutes and other public notices about local ordinances and budgets on obscure, often confusing and bureaucratic government websites.

Instead of just picking up your local newspaper and seeing all of the actions your local leaders are taking — including those that don’t lead to news coverage and big headlines — citizens will have to search the internet hoping to find more detail about government budgets and decisions.

The politicians claim this will save a little money because local governments won’t have to pay for as many notices in newspapers. What they don’t say is public access to government will be diminished. And that’s just what the politicians want, because fewer notices will mean less scrutiny and accountability for their actions. Over time, that will only lead to greater spending and waste, not less.

The full Legislature should reject Assembly Bill 70 and Senate Bill 42, which will reduce government transparency. Lawmakers also should strip from the governor’s budget any language limiting publication of government meetings and actions.

The rough and tumble of sifting and winnowing

The Journal Times of Racine

In a small piece of the proposed state budget, Gov. Scott Walker has earmarked $10,000 for the University of Wisconsin System for “codifying the state’s commitment to academic freedom” and wants the System to protect offensive speech.

The $10,000 is proposed for the UW System to review and revise policies related to academic freedom.

The governor’s companion budget bill calls on the UW Board of Regents and the campuses across the state to “guarantee all members of the System’s community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”

“It is not the proper role of the board or any institution or college campus to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” the proposed bill says.

That language seems to be straight off the plaque on Bascom Hall, with its venerable charge to “ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Free speech is a hallmark of university campuses, here and elsewhere. We subscribe to the idea that open discussion and free exchange of ideas, even objectionable ideas, is vital to the educational role of our universities.

Yes, that can be a rough and tumble process and it can be difficult for young students when their ideas are challenged. It can be difficult, too, to be exposed to ideas and beliefs of other cultures, beliefs and theories that do not square with the ones that student shares.

That is part of the learning process.

But the budget bill goes on to say that while students and others in the campus community are free to criticize or contest views and “speakers who are invited to express their views, (but) they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

“The board and each institution and college campus has a responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it,” the bill says.

That’s the part that is raising objections from some student leaders at UW-Madison, who view the proposed legislation as an attempt by state government to crack down on protests and to “normalize hate speech” when some speakers come on campus.

Yes, those speakers would likely be ones such as Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right advocate and editor of the conservative Breitbart News, whose scheduled appearance earlier this year at the University of California-Berkeley triggered a small student riot and had to be cancelled with Yiannopoulos being escorted off campus.

Yiannopoulos also made an appearance at UW-Milwaukee in December and was upbraided by Chancellor Mark Mone after he targeted a transgender student by name during his speech.

So, is this bill an attempt to encourage free speech on campuses? Or is it designed to create “safe spaces” on state campuses for speakers peddling a conservative or Republican agenda?

The bill does not spell out what responsibilities Wisconsin campuses have to ensure that such speakers are protected and allowed to speak. Does it mean students who protest a speaker will be punished or expelled for their disruptive actions? Is the campus liable if its administrators don’t follow their responsibilities as directed by the state Legislature?

Walker’s proposed bill is not the only one making the rounds of legislatures around the country. In Tennessee, a similar bill has been drawn up — labeled the “Milo Bill” — that would punish students who interfere with speakers, according to a Madison news report.

In North Carolina, a piece of proposed legislation would not only require universities to punish students who shout down speakers, but also would allow universities to be sued by speakers who had their free speech rights infringed.

Free speech may not be so free if that legislation comes to pass.

UW-Madison has struggled of late over academic freedom, free-speech issues and sensitivity to minorities. That includes episodes such as the fan at a Badgers football game last fall, who was allowed to parade through the stands with a President Barack Obama mask and a noose around his neck; the disruption of an appearance by a conservative speaker on campus in November; a threat by a legislator to cut university funding over a class on “The Problem of Whiteness”; a complaint last fall by State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, that too many guest speakers at UW campuses are liberal; and most recently, a white UW student, who had served his time in prison for arson fires at two black churches, who was trying to organize a white nationalist group on campus.

The issues involved in those episodes are all subject to reasoned, spirited debate and civil discourse. That is at the heart of the education system _ to challenge ideas, to propose new ones, to confront false arguments, to broaden personal and institutional horizons and, hopefully, to increase knowledge.

Our preference is for the UW System and our state campuses to police themselves when it comes to academic freedom and free speech, without an overlaid directive from the governor and the Legislature to enforce protections for “offensive speech.”

At the same time, our universities should understand where this state government initiative is coming from, and take its own steps to ensure civility and respect for opposing views are both tolerated and welcome on our campuses as part of the educational process.

The sifting and winnowing of thoughts and ideas must come from both the left and right sides of the barrel — the top and bottom, too — or the truth is not going to be found in the final mix.

On Wisconsin.