Free speech rights a concern in Wisconsin water resolution

A Wisconsin council could ban officials from discussing a water quality study without permission, raising concerns about the quashing of free speech

A southwestern Wisconsin county council on Tuesday dropped a proposal to prosecute journalists over their reporting on a water quality study but could still decide to discipline any county officials who talk about the research without government approval.

The Lafayette County Land Conservation Committee drafted a resolution last week that warned journalists against reporting on the well contamination study without running an official news release verbatim. Media law experts warned that the proposal was unconstitutional.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the committee removed that from the resolution Tuesday.

But the panel approved a plan to "discipline" county board members and others if they talk about the study without permission from a panel of county officials.

The board was expected to take up the resolution Tuesday evening.

"Do I think this is a flagrant breach of the First Amendment? Absolutely," said Kriss Marion, a Lafayette County Board member who opposed the plan. "When you become a public official, you don't suddenly become, you know, hamstrung as to what you can talk about."

The Journal Sentinel reported that dozens of people attended Tuesday's committee meeting, with some accusing members of trying to hide information from the public.

"I'm abashed to be living in this county with this kind of stuff going on," Ginny Bean, of Argyle, said.

Federal and state researchers have been working on a joint study measuring contamination in private wells in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, which are in southwestern Wisconsin. They released results in August that found 32 of 35 tested wells — or 91% — contained human or livestock fecal matter.

County officials were upset by news reports that they felt wrongly conveyed that 91% of all wells in the region were contaminated, Marion said. With another round of results soon, the resolution to restrict how they could be reported made its appearance last week, quickly drawing criticism for violating First Amendment protections for freedom of speech.

The committee passed the rewritten resolution 5-2 on Tuesday morning. It forbids any "board member, committee member, county official or county employee" to make any public statement on the water study without approval of a "Review Board." It warns that violators "may be subject to discipline."

County Board Chairman Jack Sauer said discipline for board members could include removal from county committees. He didn't specify what other punishments could be taken.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said officials should drop the new resolution. He said it's bad policy to require elected officials to get government approval before they speak.

"The whole reason we have independently elected public officials is so that we have the benefit of their perspective, not that they're put in a chair somewhere and told to shut up," he said.

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Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com