The scourge of privacy

Wisconsin lawmakers claim to be protecting people by shutting off access to public information.

I like privacy as much as the next person. I don’t want anybody tapping my phone or peeking through my windows. I’m even irked that whenever I go online to shop for, say, chainsaws or hiking boots, every other web site I go to afterward reminds me of my interest in these products.

But as an advocate for open government, I am troubled by the extent to which public officials are using privacy in order to shut down access to public information. They say it’s necessary because the public can’t be trusted not to do horrible things.

One manifestation of this was the decision last year to remove records of dismissed cases from the state’s online court records system. The change was supported by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who like me was a member of a committee that looked into the issue. (I opposed the change.) 

Vos argued that the information had to be removed to keep people from using it to discriminate against others whose names appear on the system, officially known as Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA). For instance, if employers learn that someone was accused of a crime, even if it was dismissed, they will refuse to hire that person. Yet Vos also told the group that he regularly hires ex-cons in his various businesses, and finds them to be excellent workers.

And that gets to the heart of the matter: pure arrogance. Those who want to purge public information believe: “I am a good person who knows that not every charge is valid and even actual convictions shouldn’t be used as a basis for judging future behavior. But other people are not nearly as good as I am and will discriminate brazenly and illegally. So we must keep them from obtaining this information.”

Yet purging information from WCCA, which many people incorrectly call CCAP, means that the system no longer provides a comprehensive picture of what happens in our courts. Right now, for instance, every former prosecutor whose last case ended more than two years again has a 100 percent conviction rate, since all of the cases that did not lead to a conviction have been purged from public view.

Currently awaiting scheduling (and likely passage) in the Wisconsin Legislature is a bill with broad bipartisan support to greatly expand the availability of expungement of criminal convictions, which entails sealing court files and removing information from WCCA. Again, this is being done to “protect” those who have been convicted against the unfair and irrational judgments of members of the public.

Recently, a state appellate court ruled that judges can order the redaction of dismissed eviction cases from WCCA. The court bought hook, line and sinker the argument advanced by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Frank Remington, who said he wished he had the authority to order this purge because “everyone goes on to CCAP and just simply assumes that if someone files an action, you must be guilty of something and you can never sort of break away and get a fair shake.”

Neither Remington nor Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, who wrote the ruling, offered any evidence in support of their contention that people other than themselves lack the capacity to reach fair conclusions about a dismissed eviction case. Instead, the public, in their view, is little more than an insensate mob eager to latch onto any excuse to discriminate.

In 2015, concerns about privacy — or so they said — led lawmakers to end the requirement that significant donors to political campaigns disclose where they work. As Wisconsin Democracy Campaign noted at the time, “This makes it much more difficult for the media and the public to know whether employees of a specific company are all giving to a candidate in the expectation that their candidate will do the company a favor if that candidate wins.”

“As the Church Lady used to say, ‘How convenient.'”

As the Church Lady used to say, “How convenient.”

Now, Vos and other GOP lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow winners of the state lottery to remain anonymous. They say it is needed to protect lottery winners from harassment. Yet the bill’s proponents, Vos included, have offered no evidence of any actual harassment endured by lottery winners. None.

The director of the Wisconsin State Lottery, Cindy Polzin, opposes the change, saying releasing winners’ names helps prevent fraud. Indeed, the nonprofit investigation news outlet Wisconsin Watch last year published a story about suspicious repeat lottery winners that could not have been written were it not for access to winners’ names.

But the proponents of shielding names are determined to force this change. “Just because you win the lottery,” bill sponsor Rep. Gary Tauchen (R-Bonduel) declared, “it shouldn’t mean you lose your right to privacy.”

A handful of other states have passed bills to shield the names of some lottery winners. In Delaware, Ohio and South Carolina, all winners can remain anonymous. But in New Jersey, then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure, saying it would “undermine the transparency that provides taxpayers confidence in the integrity of the Lottery.”

Perhaps the most outrageous recent example of secrecy in the name of privacy is the news that Jake Patterson, the man convicted of abducting 13-year-old Jayme Closs and killing her parents, has been moved to an out-of-state prison whose location is not being disclosed, according to a state Department of Corrections spokesperson, “for his safety.” So now Wisconsin is officially sending people to secret prisons to protect their privacy. Don’t ask, because the state won’t tell.

In April, I attended the annual summit of the National Freedom of Information Coalition in Dallas, Texas. One theme that came up was the embrace of privacy as a justification for keeping official state secrets.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said there have even been cases in which information on officer-involved shootings is being withheld on grounds of officer privacy. He told that group, “If you label something as pro-privacy, there’s almost nothing the legislature and judges will not affirm.” 

He added; “I sometimes think if you told people today that you wanted to create a book with everyone’s name, address, and phone number and put it on people’s doorsteps, you’d be tarred and feathered.”

I don’t mind if the law keeps people from installing secret cameras in my house. But when the state of Wisconsin decides to disrupt my life by filing bogus charges against me that are later dismissed, I bloody well want for there to be a record of it. I will trust that others can look at it and see that it was dismissed without assuming that I must have been guilty of something.

In fact, I have never met a single person who did not think that he or she had the ability to make rational judgments about people who are accused or even convicted of crimes, or who have been the subject of an eviction action. But many of them believe their fellow citizens are too stupid and too mean to do the same. 

The evocation of privacy as a justification of official secrecy is really just part of a larger push on the part of public officials to limit what the public can know about the actions and inactions of government. It serves their own interests more than anybody else’s

 

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