FAQ: Public Records Law - Wisconsin
This document provides a summary of the law in this area and answers questions frequently asked of attorneys in the Office of General Counsel. However, the information presented here is intended for informational purposes only and nothing in this document should be construed or relied upon as legal advice. The Office of General Counsel or your Campus Legal Counsel should be consulted regarding the specific facts and circumstances associated with any legal matter.
How long do I have to respond to a request?
A. Although no time limit exists for responding to a request, you must respond to a request "as soon as practicable and without delay" (Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (4)). The Department of Justice suggests ten working days as a reasonable response time for simple, straightforward requests. If it is not possible to respond within that time, it is appropriate to acknowledge the request and explain that a response will be provided as soon as possible. You must, however, respond to an employee's request to inspect his or her personnel records within seven working days after the employee makes a written request. Wis. Stat. § 103.13 (2).
Do I need to respond to an oral request
or to an anonymous request?
A. Yes, you must respond to all requests, oral or written. The requester is not required to identify himself or herself or state the reasons for the request. Wis. Stat. §19.35 (1) (i). Also, you may require an employee who requests to inspect his or her personnel records to make the request in writing. Wis. Stat. §103.13 (2).
How specific does a request need to be?
A. The request needs to be reasonably specific as to the subject matter and time period involved. Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (1) (h).
Do I need to deny a request in writing?
A.The General Counsel recommends that all public records denials be made in writing unless the requester has refused to provide an address. A denial must include a statement of the specific reasons for denial, and a notice of the requester’s appeal rights. Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (4) (b).
What if a person requests a video tape or audio tape
A. Unless the video tape or audio tape recording contains information that is exempt from disclosure, you must provide the requester with a copy of the tape recording that is substantially as good as the original. Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (1) (c) and (d). Recordings should be edited to delete information that should not be disclosed if reasonable and technically feasible.
What if the requested record is not readily comprehensible
or cannot be copied?
A. If the record is not readily comprehensible, you must provide the requester with a written, comprehensible copy of the information contained in the record. Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (1) (e). If the record cannot be copied, you must permit the requester to photograph the record. Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (1) (f).
What kind of facilities do I need to provide a person
who is authorized to copy and inspect a record?
A. You must provide the person with facilities comparable to those used by the employees of your institution. You must also allow the inspection and copying to take place during your regular business hours. Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (2).
Q. What kind of fees may I charge for locating
or copying records?
A. You may impose a fee for locating the record, not exceeding the actual, necessary and direct cost of the location process, only if the location cost is $50 or more. You may also impose fees for reproduction, transcription, photographing, mailing and shipping, as long as those fees do not exceed the actual, necessary and direct cost for those activities. Finally, you may require prepayment by the requester if the total amount of fees exceeds $5. Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (3).
What if a person requests a record that contains some
information that is subject to disclosure and some
that is not?
A. You must provide the information that is subject to disclosure and delete (redact) from the copy provided to the requester any information that is not subject to disclosure. Wis. Stat. § 19.36 (6).
May a person challenge the accuracy of a record?
A. Yes, if the record contains personally identifiable information about the requester and the requester notifies you in writing of the challenge. If you concur with the challenge, you must correct the information; if you deny the challenge, you must notify the person who has challenged the record (or his or her representative) of the reasons for the denial and allow the person to file a concise statement that sets forth the reasons for the requester's disagreement with the disputed portion of the record. Wis. Stat. § 19.365 (1). If an employee disagrees with any information contained in his or her personnel records and you cannot agree on the information, you must permit the employee to submit a written statement explaining the employee's position and you must attach this statement to the disputed portion of the personnel record. Wis. Stat. § 103.13 (4).
Is my email a public record?
A. Yes. Email is often a public record. Wisconsin’s public records law does not consider the format for a record, but rather its substantive content. “Record means any material…regardless of physical form or characteristics, which has been created or is being kept by an authority.” Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (2). Thus, a state employee’s email messages are public records, except for those emails that fall within an exception to the definition of public record.
Q. Is everything created or received by a
state employee a public record?
A. No. Wisconsin’s public records law expansively defines the term record. “Record means any material on which written, drawn, printed, spoken, visual or electromagnetic information is recorded or preserved, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which has been created or is being kept by an authority.” Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (2).
However, there are exceptions to this definition. “Record does not include drafts, notes, preliminary computations and like materials prepared for the originator’s personal use or prepared by the originator in the name of a person for whom the originator is working; materials which are purely the personal property of the custodian and have no relation to his or her office; materials to which access is limited by copyright, patent or bequest; and published materials in the possession of an authority other than a public library which are available for sale, or which are available for inspection at a public library.” Id.
What should I do if I receive
a record request in a matter where I feel litigation
is likely to occur or where litigation has already
A. Contact the Office of General Counsel or Campus Legal Counsel.