Open Records Requests
What is the Wisconsin Public Records Law?
In its most general terms the Wisconsin Public Records Law provides that any requester may inspect and/or copy any record that is not specifically excepted by some provision of state or federal law. The law specifically declares that it is the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them. Providing such persons with such information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of the officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information. The Public Records Law is to be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.
Who can make a public records request?
A request may be made by any individual, except a person incarcerated in a state, county or municipal correctional facility or a person committed to a mental health facility for violation of various criminal statutes. The identity and motive of the requester is irrelevant. No request may be denied because the person making it is unwilling to be identified or state the purpose of the request. In the event that you are made aware that the request is being made by the news media, as a matter of institutional policy, please contact the Office of University Communications to make them aware of the request.
Does the request have to be in writing?
No. Requests for records may be either oral or written. A requester need not use specific language and a custodian of records may not require the use of a specific form. The law also provides that every request must reasonably describe the record or information requested. A request is generally not sufficient if it is not reasonably limited as to its subject matter or the period of time covered by the request. If you have any questions about what the requester is actually looking for or if you think that the request is unreasonable in scope, you should immediately contact the requester to attempt to resolve the ambiguity.
Do I have to give a requester whatever they ask for?
No. The law identifies certain information that cannot be released. You should contact OALS to assist in analyzing what, if any, records are responsive to a request.
How long do I have to respond?
A request for records must be responded to as soon as practicable and without delay. While the meaning of this phrase will vary with the nature and extent of the request, all such requests are important and should be taken seriously. An arbitrary and capricious delay exposes the custodian of the records to punitive damages and a $1,000 forfeiture. OALS recommends that you immediately acknowledge the receipt of a request and work to further respond within 10 days of receiving the request. If you know that production of the records in question within that time will not be possible, contact the requester immediately and provide a reasonable estimate of the time required.
Do I have to respond in writing?
If a request is made orally, it may be denied orally, unless a demand for a written statement of the reasons denying the request is made by the requester within five business days of the oral denial. A written request requires a written response if any part of the request is being denied.
If I deny a request, is there anything special I need to do?
The reasons for any denial of a request must be stated specifically and sufficiently. A denial cannot merely state the conclusion that has been reached, but must be specific as to the legal basis for the denial. A written denial must also inform the requester that the determination is subject to review by mandamus under s. 19.37(1), Stats., or upon application to the Attorney General or the applicable district attorney.
Can I charge a fee to the requester?
You may charge for copying costs that are limited to the actual, necessary and direct cost of reproduction. The current rate for photocopying is $.25 per page. There may be no additional charge for the labor involved in copying or redacting the records. If a request requires an extensive search, it may be appropriate to charge a locating fee, but only if the actual cost of locating the record is $50.00 or more. The fee may also include the actual, necessary and direct cost of mailing or shipping the records. A responding office may require prepayment of any fee, if the total amount of the fee exceeds $5.00. If you have questions, please contact Jason Beier by email at email@example.com or by phone at 608-265-3040, or the Office of General Counsel for the UW-System by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 608-262-0747.