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Editor's Views: Misguided interpretation at fault for fewer records

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Scott Angus
March 8, 2014

The Gazette has long taken pride in serving as a paper of record.

For many years, we've detailed traffic accidents, crimes and arrests in our primary communities, and we've included names in many of those reports. After all, names are news, and they make our coverage more relevant to readers.

Some items justified stories, while others were included in the Public Record, otherwise known as “the log.”

Things have changed. In our opinion, they haven't changed for the better.

We can thank something called the DPPA, otherwise known as the Drivers Privacy Protection Act. It's a federal law intended to keep private information included in people's drivers records from being disseminated without their permission.

Congress passed the law in 1994 in response to troubling incidents involving people with bad intentions tracking down others using information obtained through drivers records. In the most notorious case, a deranged fan stalked and killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989.

While the law was approved with good intentions, it has led to what we believe are unintended consequences that limit access to law enforcement records and our ability to keep the public informed about items that have traditionally been mainstays of The Gazette and other newspapers.

Based on an interpretation of the law in a suit involving a parking ticket in Illinois in 2011, many police and sheriff's offices are being advised that they no longer can release identifying information about people in their reports if that information is obtained from drivers records. In other words, if a person's name and address come from a driver's license, the police can't release that information.

What does that mean for us and you? It means we no longer get reports of accidents, crimes and arrests from most area police departments and sheriff's offices. They could release the reports without names and addresses, but they'd have to take the time to redact that information. Many simply stopped making the reports available. The Janesville Police Department is a notable exception and continues to provide the information.

So if you've noticed a significant reduction in such reports in The Gazette, including in the Public Record, that's why. We don't like it, and we think this is an overreaction that violates the state's open records law. We've made our case to several agencies that are withholding the information, but their lawyers' advice has trumped our arguments.

The ironic part is that the information does become available as soon as these cases go to court, and those names and addresses are posted for all to see through the state's online court records.

We haven't given up with the police agencies, though, and we're confident that the law's intent will ultimately be clarified in our favor. It could be awhile, though.

A paper in northern Wisconsin, the New Richmond News, was the first to challenge a police department's redactions. That suit is working its way through the courts, and the state's best public records attorney is representing the paper. The rest of the news media are watching closely, but we don't expect a final ruling for months if not longer

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association, which represents all of us, is looking into a legislative remedy. The intent would be to have one of our representatives in Congress introduce a bill or an amendment to the federal budget that makes it clear that the DPPA does not supersede state open records laws.

In the meantime, we're frustrated that we can't provide the same level of law enforcement coverage that our readers are accustomed to seeing. We are confident, however, that the reduction is temporary. This is public information in one of its most basic forms, and the public has a right to see it.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.



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