Journalism groups worry about impact of Wisconsin legislators' vote targeting investigative nonprofit

WISCONSIN — Journalism organizations are expressing concern over a budget provision added by state lawmakers targeting the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Around 6 a.m. Wednesday, members of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 to add a provision to the state budget that would expel the Center from its offices at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and ban faculty working with the Center as part of their faculty duties.

The Center’s executive director, Andy Hall, could not be reached, but said in a statement on the organization’s website that he’s been “overwhelmed by messages of support from journalists and journalism educators” who are concerned the decision “could have a ripple effect.”

So far, a number of journalism organizations, including the national office of the Society of Professional Journalists and the local Madison chapter, have spoken out about the measure.

Sonny Albarado, SPJ’s president, said that the news of this vote is very troubling.

“It is concerning that they would try to cut off a nonprofit journalism entity,” he said.

Greg Downey, director of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism, said he was shocked by the news of the vote and concerned about the implications if the provision is passed.

“We didn’t see this coming at all,” he said.

The Center has been working with the school for about three years now, Downey said. During that time they have put out a large number of investigative news reports that have been published throughout the state, he said. He said the Center has been a great resource for the school’s students.

“We give them use of a few offices around here on the fifth floor of an old 1970’s building, and they make paid internships available to our students on a regular basis,” he said. “It’s been a fantastic relationship.”

Downey said that the provision passed by legislators is problematic in two regards — it threatens the collaboration as well as faculty members’ academic freedom.

“Breaking that relationship, which would prohibit us from housing the center and also prohibit us from having any relationship with the Center just makes no sense to me,” he said. “The Center has done so much good work around the state and so much good work in our school with our students.”

Downey said he was concerned by the legislature making decrees about the school’s research, teaching and service choices.

“That’s really a government and academic freedom issue,” he said.

Kevin Davis, CEO of the Investigative News Network, of which the Wisconsin Center is a member, described the vote as an attack.

“When you have a politically motivated situation where you are trying to prevent the institution from doing its job, which is informing its citizenry and giving real-world practice to journalism students, you are effectively attacking that institution,” said Davis. “To me this seems like just one of several attempts to suppress a free press.”

Davis said he was not surprised by the vote.

“We know of other proposed laws in other states that are designed to limit and suppress nonprofit news,” he said.

Downey said he’s worried other legislators will copy Wisconsin if the provision stands and is incorporated into the final budget.

“If this stands here in Wisconsin I have no doubt that other legislatures might try to follow and try to restrict academic freedom at public research universities through these kind of micromanaging means and that would be worrisome,” he said.

Faculty members are lobbying contacts in the state House to remove the provision, Downey said.

“Individual faculty in the department and students as well are contacting their representatives in state government and they are contacting the governor to express their concern over this,” Downey said.

“We just can’t believe that we are being targeted,” Downey said. “I hope (for) a groundswell of concern if for nothing else than to say, ‘Hey, this needs to be explained and debated and open to public scrutiny.’ I think that will really help.”

By Margaret Baum, SPLC staff writer. Contact Baum by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.