Supreme Court favors openness in Appleton schools case

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association and other advocates for government transparency praised a unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling on Thursday that found the state’s open meetings law applies to committees that take action on behalf of governmental entities.

The court ruled in John Krueger v. Appleton Area School District Board of Directors that a committee of school staff members violated the open meetings law by holding meetings that were closed to the public while evaluating and revising course materials.

The ruling, written by Justice Michael Gableman, said the way the committee was formed and the committee’s structure met the definition of a “governmental body.”

“Where a governmental entity adopts a rule authorizing the formation of committees and conferring on them the power to take collective action, such committees are ‘created by … rule’ under (State Statute) 19.82(1) and the open meetings law applies to them,” Gableman wrote.

An amicus curiae brief was filed with the court by attorney April Rockstead Barker on behalf of the WNA, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. The three organizations maintained the committee involved in the case should have been subject to the state open meetings law.

“This is a major victory for transparency in local government,” said Beth Bennett, executive director of the WNA. “The ruling confirms that local governmental entities in the state cannot circumvent the open meetings law by delegating decision-making authority to unaccountable committees.”

The case originated from the work of a staff-appointed committee of 17 teachers, administrators and staffers in the School District of Appleton beginning in the fall of 2011, which was tasked with reviewing potential works of fiction to be included in a ninth-grade reading curriculum. The review was prompted by complaints from Krueger, the parent of an Appleton school district student, who was concerned about profanity, obscenities and sexual content in the reading materials for a communications class.

The committee met privately nine times during the next six months, narrowing a list of more than 90 book titles to 23 titles, which were then recommended to the school board for approval.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) – representing Krueger – filed a verified complaint alleging the committee violated the open meetings law. Charges were not filed within 20 days of the complaint, which prompted WILL to file the lawsuit on July 29, 2013.

The Outagamie Circuit Court ruled in favor of the school district and the decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals on June 28, 2016. The Supreme Court’s ruling reverses the lower courts’ decision. The case will return to Outagamie Circuit Court to determine whether the school district must pay Krueger’s legal fees.

“The critical thing about today’s decision is that it affirms Wisconsin’s open meetings law is to be construed and applied liberally,” said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel for WILL, in a press release. “The school district here strained to find reasons not to follow the law. Today, the court made clear the presumption is to be in favor of transparency.”

Read the Supreme Court opinion …