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MADISON - Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen today issued an informal opinion concluding that the content of a "Google group" website called "Making Salem Better," which is maintained by the Salem Town Chair, was a public record and that access to the materials from the website should be made available for inspection upon reasonable request.
The opinion was requested by Gail A. Peckler-Dziki, a reporter for the Westosha/Paddock Lake Report. Ms. Peckler-Dziki provided information indicating that the Salem Town Chair, Linda Valentine, maintained the website for the purpose of discussing town issues with members of the group, but had declined to provide access to the website for the newspaper. The Attorney General reasoned that the Wisconsin Public Records law applied to the website because it was created and kept by an authority (here an elected official), and its content was connected to the authority's official purpose or function pursuant to section 19.32(2) of the Wisconsin statutes. The opinion stressed that it was limited to the factual situation presented in the request and might not apply to information that was personal or otherwise protected by First Amendment or privacy concerns.
While the Attorney General concluded that the contents of "Making Salem Better" constituted a public record, he did not find that the Town Chair was required to provide electronic access or group membership to the newspaper. Rather, the public records law grants only a right to inspect the contents of the website. The "right to inspect" covers having access to and copies of record information, but not necessarily the right to participate in the discussion as a member of the Google group.
Under the public records law, the Attorney General may provide opinions as to the law's applicability to any person. Advice often takes the form of correspondence from the Assistant Attorneys General, but the Attorney General may issue formal or informal opinions.