Wisconsin Supreme Court Sides With Open Government Advocates in School Boards Case

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously sided with open government advocates Thursday in a closely watched case over when meetings should be open to the public.

The court ruled that the Appleton school district improperly closed the meeting of a committee charged with reviewing course material. A parent in the district who had wanted to attend the meetings sued and lost in lower courts before the state Supreme Court sided with him.

"Today's decision reaffirms that the open meetings law is to be interpreted literally in favor of transparency," said attorney Rick Esenberg with the conservative law firm Wisconsin Law and Liberty, which fought the district's decision.

Attorney General Brad Schimel, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Wisconsin Newspapers Association, and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association all filed briefs in support of the argument that the meetings violated state law. They had warned that an adverse ruling could allow school boards and others to get around public access requirements.

Schimel praised the ruling. "Transparency is essential for good government and I'm glad to see the Supreme Court weighed in on the side of openness," he said.

Christine Hamiel, attorney for the school district that defended closing the meetings, said she was not authorized to comment but that the Appleton superintendent would be releasing a statement.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, heralded the ruling as a "significant win for those who care about transparency in Wisconsin. Public officials cannot be creating committees to do the public's business and then tell the public it cannot attend."

The lawsuit was brought by John Krueger, the parent of an Appleton Area School District student who said meetings of a committee charged with reviewing course material for a 9th grade English class should have been open to the public.

Krueger argued in court filings that governmental bodies could evade the open meetings law by having administrators, rather than the governing boards, create committees. The district argued that when a committee is created by school employees it is not created by "rule or order" of the governing body and therefore not subject to the law.

The court disagreed.

The committee "met the definition of 'governmental body' under the open meetings law and therefore was subject to its terms," Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the court. Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley concurred, but also cautioned that the open meetings law is not without its limits and should not apply to "every meeting between administrators and employees and others."

Esenberg downplayed those concerns, also voiced by the district, that a broad interpretation of the law would hinder local governments and force notice of meetings any time employees got together to discuss something.

"We did not argue that any ad hoc meeting of government employees ... is subject to the open meetings law," Esenberg said. "I don't think this is going to hamstring or interfere with the operation of government."

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Abrahamson and Bradley said more clarity and guidance is needed to help local governments determine what is subject to the open meetings law.

Krueger raised concerns in 2011 about references to suicide and sex in the book "The Body of Christopher Creed" that students in a freshman communications arts class read. Krueger requested an alternative class be offered that includes books containing no profanity, obscenities or sexualized content. He objected to subsequent closed-door committee meetings that addressed his concerns.

Krueger said Thursday that he no longer has children in the district, but he does intend to remain involved and observe committee meetings like the one at the heart of his case.

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