Wisconsin Freedom of Information Act

What is the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act is a federal or state law that permits individuals to view and make copies of documents relating to public businesses generated and kept in the custody of federal, state, or local public agencies. The Freedom of Information Act aims to ensure the government's transparency and accountability. In Wisconsin, the Freedom of Information Act is contained in the Wisconsin Statute 19.21 et seq and is referred to as the Wisconsin Open Records Law. The Wisconsin Open Records Law was legislated in 1982 to grant citizens the right to access public records of Wisconsin government bodies at all levels upon request. Since its enactment, there have not been any significant changes to the Wisconsin Open Records Law.

What is Covered Under the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Act?

Under the Wisconsin Open Records Law, public records are all forms of documents and recordings created and maintained by public agencies in the state. Section 19.32(2) of Wisconsin Statutes defines records as any material, regardless of their physical forms or characteristics, on which information is recorded or kept. Therefore, public records could appear in handwritten forms, printed documents, audios, visuals, maps, charts, recordings, photographs, films, computer printouts, tapes (including computer tapes), and optical disks. Some records covered under the Wisconsin Open Records Law are:

  • Financial records, including budgets and invoices
  • Correspondence, including emails
  • Board agendas, minutes, and related documents
  • Court records
  • Divorce records
  • Birth records
  • Policies and procedures
  • Adult criminal history information
  • Arrest records, warrants, and mug shots.
  • Personnel records

The public agencies covered under the Wisconsin Open Records Law include all branches of government at the state and local levels and privatized governmental agencies. Institutions that received at least 50% of their funds from public money are also classified as public agencies in Wisconsin.

What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Wisconsin?

The Wisconsin Open Records Law does not permit the disclosure of some records because their disclosure may jeopardize the records subjects' safety or violate their privacy rights. In addition, some records are also exempt from the Wisconsin Open Records Law because the exemption is in the public’s best interest. Examples of records that are exempt from the law are:

  • Trade secrets, as defined under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act
  • Preliminary drafts, notes, intra-agency recommendations, and memorandums
  • Identities of public positions applicants who request confidentiality, except for those applicants who become final candidates
  • Investigation, law enforcement, and crime victims records
  • Health care records
  • Identity of law enforcement informants
  • Plans or specifications of state buildings
  • Financial identifying information, including personally identifiable information such as credit card or debit card numbers and checking or draft account numbers
  • Certain employee personnel records, including information related to ongoing disciplinary investigations, comments or ratings relating to employees’ performance evaluations, and letters of reference
  • Personally identifiable information, such as home addresses, home telephone numbers, or social security numbers that would threaten the safety of the individuals identified

How Do I File a Wisconsin Freedom of Information Act Request?

According to the Wisconsin Open Records Law, anyone can access public records. However, incarcerated persons and persons who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions have restricted rights of access to public records. To file a public record request, determine the state or local agency with custody of the record and send a written request to the agency. The contact information and addresses of state agencies and offices in Wisconsin can be found on Wisconsin’s official website. Requesters may find specific procedures for requesting access to public records and the contact details of the records custodians maintaining such records on the agencies’ websites. Requesters may also find record request forms on the state agencies’ websites. Where request forms are not provided on the websites of the state agencies maintaining the records of interest, requesters will be required to submit written requests. These written requests should include requesters' names, phone numbers, email addresses, and specific descriptions of the requested records.

Requesters may submit completed request forms or written requests to the records custodians of the agencies maintaining the requested records during business hours. For example, requesters may access records maintained by the Wisconsin National Guard by orally requesting records or submitting written requests on any business day between the office hours of 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Written requests can be submitted to:

Wisconsin National Guard – Freedom of Information Act Office
P.O. Box 8111
Madison, WI 53708-8111
Phone: (608) 242-3057

Generally, public record requests can be submitted in person, by mail, email, or fax. Record custodians also respond to oral requests. If a requester makes a record request in person, they may either make copies of the record or simply view the requested record copy at the record custodian’s office.

What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Wisconsin?

The cost of a public record request in Wisconsin typically covers the actual, necessary, and direct costs of duplicating, transcribing, photographing, or mailing or shipping a record as specified in Wisconsin Statutes § 19.35(3). Likewise, the costs of providing electronic records do not exceed the actual, necessary and direct costs. An agency may charge a fee not more than the actual, necessary, and direct costs for locating a record if the cost is $50 or more. The law does not permit public agencies to charge fees for redacting parts of records. A public agency may provide records at no cost or a reduced fee if it is determined that the waiver or fee reduction is in the public's best interest. The records custodian of a public agency may require prepayment of a fee if the total amount exceeds $5.

How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Wisconsin?

The Wisconsin law does not specify how long it takes for public agencies to process requests for public records. However, the Wisconsin Statutes § 19.35(4)(a) requires public agencies to respond to public record requests promptly and without any delay. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Justice has an official policy requiring a public agency to respond to a record request within ten business days after the request was sent. A public agency may respond to a public record request by providing the requested records or notifying the requester that the record request will be partially or wholly denied.

An agency's response time may depend on the nature and extent of the request, the availability of staff, and other resources required to process the request. If the record custodian of an agency denies a record request, the requester who was denied access to the record has the right to request that the denial be sent to them in writing. According to Wisconsin Statutes § 19.35(4)(b), the written notification of request denial must include reasons for the denial. It must be delivered to the requester within five business days of the denial.

According to the Wisconsin Statutes § 19.37(1), the delay of a request response does not always mean the request has been denied. However, a requester may file a suit to obtain access. Also, if an agency’s response to a record request is that the requested records will not be made available until an unspecified date in the future, the response may be treated as a denial. A requester denied access to a public record may:

  • Petition for writ of mandamus at a Circuit Court. The court may permit the requester or their attorney to have access to the requested record under certain conditions or protective orders the court considers appropriate; or
  • Petition the District Attorney of the county where the record is found, or the Wisconsin Attorney General, to initiate an action for mandamus asking the court to order the release of the requested record to the requester.

If a public agency or legal custodian denies a record request or delays the response for any arbitrary reasons or charges inappropriate fees, they may be required to forfeit up to $1,000, in a case brought by the Attorney General or a District Attorney.