DARLINGTON, Wis. – A rural Wisconsin county has backed off plans to prosecute reporters who wrote about water quality issues if they did not quote a county news release verbatim.
Instead of approving the idea, which drew national attention for violating the First Amendment right to freedom of the press, a Lafayette County committee approved a resolution Tuesday aimed at regulating county board members and other officials.
The dust-up highlights the sensitivity of well contamination in rural Wisconsin and who is responsible for the problem after an August study on contaminated wells. The dropped resolution would have strictly limited access to future water quality test results to certain officials who would then craft news releases to share with the public.
It warned news media not to selectively report results on their own and that “violators will be prosecuted.”
Dozens of people packed the early-morning committee meeting in the basement of the Lafayette County courthouse. They excoriated county officials for their handling of water quality issues and accused them of trying to hide information from the public.
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Kriss Marion, a Lafayette County Board member who fought the plan called the language of the abandoned proposal “completely bananas” but said it reflected conservation committee members’ frustration at what they felt were news reports’ misinterpretation or simplification of the August study.
The study found that of the 35 wells in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties that had been found to be contaminated in previous months, 32 of them – 91% – still contained fecal matter.
Marion said the 91% statistic spread fast among residents who didn’t understand it was a look at a specific subset of wells. The study was the third of three rounds – the first two tested hundreds of wells in the counties and found 42% of wells were contaminated in the first round and 27% in the second round.
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The committee rewrote the resolution Tuesday and dropped the idea of prosecuting reporters. But the new resolution – which passed 5-2, with Marion voting against it – also drew criticism.
“Do I think this is a flagrant breach of the First Amendment? Absolutely,” said Marion. “When you become a public official, you don’t suddenly become, you know, hamstrung as to what you can talk about.”
The resolution states, “No board member, committee member, county official or county employee is authorized to make any public statement regarding the water study without the authorization of the Review Board.
“Any board member, committee member, county official or county employee violating this process may be subject to discipline.”
County Board Chairman Jack Sauer said discipline for board members could include removal from county committees. He didn’t specify what other punishments could be taken.
“We have a way to present information for the county,” Sauer said. “Not everybody gets to talk about things. Some things shouldn’t be talked about.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said officials should drop the new resolution.
“It looks like they’re trying to save face here,” Lueders said. “They got caught looking foolish in front of the entire nation for their initial resolution which they put forward and now they want to salvage some part of it … they really should be trashing the whole thing along with whoever it was that drafted this to begin with.”
Requiring elected officials to get government approval before they can speak is bad policy, he said.
“The whole reason we have independently elected public officials is so that we have the benefit of their perspective, not that they’re put in a chair somewhere and told to shut up,” he said.
The board chairman brushed off concerns about the legality of the resolution.
“It already passed legal muster,” Sauer said. “It was already written by an attorney.”
He declined to provide the name of the lawyer: “What difference does it make?” he asked a reporter.
Contributing: Lee Bergquist and Bruce Vielmetti. Follow Patrick Marley on Twitter at @patrickdmarle.