The Wisconsin Supreme Court decided a case against the Madison teacher’s union yesterday. MTI wanted access to union voting records, but the courts ruled that access to those records opens the door for voter intimidation.
Madison Teachers Inc., the labor union representing local school teachers, sued Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission because it would not give records of who had voted in Union Certification Election so far. Unions are required to re-certify every couple of years. MTI wanted to know the names of those who had not yet voted in order to plan a strategy for contacting people. The state denied the request because it could have resulted in harassment.
MTI won the law suit in Dane County Court, but the Supreme Court reviewed and reversed that decision, despite no evidence of that the union had any intention of voter harassment. The vote was split 5 to 2.
Records such as these fall into a broad category that is subject to a “balancing test.” This means that there is no categorical exemption for records of union re-certification elections, but a public authority that holds these records can apply a balance test to it. It is up to their discretion as to whether or not the potential harm from releasing the record is greater than the presumed good from having access to it.
Bill Lueder, President of the Freedom of Information Council, finds it problematic that the intention of the requester weighed into the Supreme Court’s decision, as this has been a traditionally neutral point. He says, “Whether someone wants a record for a good reason or a bad reason is not supposed to matter. It’s a public record and you’re supposed to be able to get it when you ask for it.” He worries that the Supreme Court’s ruling will set a precedent that could be abused in the future.
He also says that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a history of similar rulings, suggesting that the Court will use speculation of the worst ways people could use records as a basis for denial.
Nina Kravinsky spoke more with Bill Lueders about the case today.