MADISON, Wis. — At least one Wisconsin county official wants to warn any journalists who cover the upcoming release of a regional water quality study: Publish the county’s news release summarizing the findings in its entirety without any alterations or risk criminal prosecution.
The Lafayette County Conservation Committee plans to vote Tuesday on the resolution, which would warn reporters to print the upcoming news release without any edits or alterations or face prosecution. It isn’t clear which committee member or members wrote the resolution or whether they sought legal advice before proposing it, but the effort looks blatantly unconstitutional, according to experts in media law.
“All I can say is: Wow,” UW-Madison journalism instructor Kathleen Bartzen Culver said in an email to The Associated Press. “I am astonished that a local government would find it appropriate, much less legal, to threaten a news organization with prosecution for doing what they are constitutionally protected in doing — representing the public interest by seeking, analyzing and reporting information.
“For the life of me, I’m struggling to envision under what statute a journalist would be prosecuted for covering water test results released by local government.”
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 southeastern Wisconsin. They released results in August that found that 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, said Lafayette County Board member Kriss Marion. The researchers are expected to release another round of results soon.
Marion said the conservation committee’s resolution suddenly appeared in the county clerk’s office on Thursday. The resolution states that the August results were leaked and it accuses the media of slandering southwestern Wisconsin.
As a result, only the county chairman would be allowed to talk to the media about future test results. The chairman would craft a news release and any media outlets that edit the release rather than printing it in its entirety would be prosecuted.
“Under no circumstances is the media allowed to glean information and selectively report it in order to interpret the results for their own means,” the resolution states.
The resolution doesn’t cite what law noncompliant news outlets would be prosecuted under. Lafayette County’s attorney, Mason Russell, didn’t immediately reply to a voicemail left at his office Friday.
Marion, who is also a member of the conservation committee, posted the resolution on her Facebook page in an effort to draw attention to it.
She said it’s unclear who authored the resolution. Neither the committee’s chairman, Gerald Heimann, nor the county board chairman, Jack Sauer, immediately replied to Friday voicemails.
Marion said the committee plans to vote on the resolution during an emergency meeting Tuesday morning. If the committee signs off, the full county board would take it up Tuesday evening, she said.
“I object to this on so many levels,” Marion said. “It’s all nonsense.”
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Todd Richmond, The Associated Press