Wisconsin appeals court rejects newspaper’s petition for access to school district notes

WISCONSIN — A Wisconsin appeals court recently ruled that notes made by school district officials during an investigation into hazing allegations in a school wrestling program are not public records under state law.

The appeals court determined that the records were exempt from required disclosure under Wisconsin’s public records statute due to what the court called the “personal use exception.”

The Voice of Wisconsin Rapids, a now-defunct weekly newspaper, requested all documents related to the investigation, which the district withheld.

The newspaper then requested a writ of mandamus to order the district to grant the newspaper access to documents created by district employees in connection to interviews they conducted as part of the investigation. The circuit court denied the request, and the newspaper appealed.

The definition of “record” under Wis. Stat. § 19.32(2). excludes “drafts, notes, preliminary computations and like materials” that are prepared for the originator’s personal use.

The district argued that some of the requested documents were not “records” under the personal use exemption — they were notes created for the personal use of district employees, who never exchanged or shared the notes with anyone.

Even though the documents might be handwritten notes, the newspaper argued, they were not the types of “personal notes” that could be excluded from the definition of public records. The newspaper argued that the notes could not be subject to the personal use exception if their content has “relevance to a government function.”

The appeals court applied a strict understanding of the statute in rejecting this argument. The statute does not explicitly reference notes that relate to a government function.

“Notes” and “personal use” are not defined in Wisconsin’s public records law.

The court determined from its review that the documents in question were “notes,” due to the fact that most were handwritten, and “at times barely legible,” reflecting “hurried, fragmentary, and informal writing.” Witness testimony available to the circuit court also described the documentary process as note-taking.

A few of the documents are in the form of draft letters, but were in the “nature” of notes, the appeals court said.

The court relied on an attorney general opinion to conclude that the notes were subject to the personal use exception, as they were not distributed to others for the purpose of communicating information, and were not retained for the purpose of “memorializing” agency activity.

The news organization argued that the note-taker’s effectively distributed or planned to distribute the notes to others.

The appeals court, in rejecting that argument, wrote “the mere fact that retained notes could be distributed to others in the future does not deprive the notes of their personal-use nature.”

The decision was filed on June 4, 2015.