The menacing resolution appeared on the rural county committee agenda without warning, its provenance unknown but its threat clear: The news media was to publish a local government press release — verbatim, in full — or else.
“Violators will be prosecuted,” the proposal reads.
Kriss Marion, a supervisor in southwestern Wisconsin’s Lafayette County, laughed when she first saw it. Surely, she thought, the resolution was a joke. But it also included language she had heard before, a warning shot to local officials that forbade them from speaking to the press without “express authority” from county higher-ups. Plus, the proposal was tucked into the agenda for a last-minute emergency meeting of Lafayette’s Land Conservation Committee set for Tuesday.
It certainly wasn’t legal, Marion said, but it was real.
“It creates a relationship with everybody mentioned that is adversarial, controlling and dictatorial,” she said in an interview. “What’s interesting is that there would be any support for a resolution like this. You would hope people understand the press as a really important part of our democracy. But people have lost touch with civics; they don’t understand how government works.”
The resolution centers on the upcoming results of a water quality study, the findings of which would be public information. But under the resolution, only the county board chairman would be allowed to talk to the media about the test results. He would craft a press release and issue it with an exhortation not to edit or partially quote from it, but to publish the statement in full.
Any outlet that disobeys would face legal charges — though the proposal doesn’t specify which law an offending organization would be accused of violating.
“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 reads.
It’s unclear who wrote the proposal — it was submitted anonymously — but Marion said she was told the chairman, Jack Sauer, pushed for its inclusion on the agenda. Sauer did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s also unclear whether the committee will actually vote on the measure. After word of the proposal spread, along with condemnation of it, the county’s lawyer told some local reporters it was a nonstarter and that the meeting was off. But as of Monday night, no one had told Marion that, she said, and she still planned to show up for the morning meeting. The lawyer, Nathan Russell, did not respond to a request for comment.
Even if the resolution isn’t considered, the fact it was introduced in the first place is alarming enough, said David Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition.
“It’s outrageous,” Snyder said. “It sounds like there are some folks who need a basic civics education. It’s a fundamental principle underlining the First Amendment that the government can’t prosecute a journalist for reporting facts. It would be laughable if it weren’t so simultaneously chilling. This is really beyond the pale.”
In its very first line, the resolution runs into legal trouble, Snyder said. The preamble states, “Whereas, in the past, Southwest Wisconsin has been falsely slandered by the press.” However, he said, a region of the state cannot bring a defamation lawsuit, and a government cannot be defamed under U.S. law.
“To say ‘Southwest Wisconsin’ has been slandered is, at a very basic level, problematic legally and nonsensical,” Snyder said.
But the language befits a political environment of increasing antipathy toward the media, one in which journalists are regularly called “enemies of the people” and have been denigrated by the country’s most powerful leaders.
“It does fit into a larger narrative we’ve seen recently of hostility bordering on hatred toward the press for simply doing their job,” Snyder said.
And this animosity is bipartisan, he added, pointing to two recent examples from California, the deep-blue state where his organization is based.
In March, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra ordered journalists at the University of California at Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program to destroy data the state gave them on police officers’ arrests and convictions. Becerra said the disclosure was a mistake and that publishing the files would be against the law.
Two months later, San Francisco police raided the home of freelance reporter Bryan Carmody after he refused to give up the name of a source who leaked him a confidential report.
Both events, Snyder said, “evidence a lack of understanding for the key constitutional role reporters play in our country.”
Marion agreed that the misunderstanding is a problem on the left and the right. As an elected official in a nonpartisan local government and a former journalist, she is especially able to recognize this. Marion was for years a beat reporter in the Chicago suburbs and a freelance copy editor.
She ran for office in the county of 16,000 to address rural water contamination, she said, which has become a sensitive subject locally. Some have accused researchers of unfairly blaming farmers, while others worry how negative water quality test results will impact property values.
Marion suspects the resolution is a response to the unfortunate round of media coverage that followed the release of the latest test results. The study found that 32 of 35 private wells contained fecal matter from humans or livestock. However, Marion said, those 35 private reservoirs are just a fraction of the region’s wells. Nevertheless, some news reports declared that 91 percent of all wells in rural southwest Wisconsin were contaminated.
“It was lazy reporting and very lazy reading,” she said.
But still, Marion said, it’s unlikely that the draconian resolution is a good-faith effort to correct inaccuracies about water quality. Instead, she said, it appears to be an attempt by someone in county government to control the flow of crucial information from scientists to the public.
“We’re in the middle of learning about a public crisis,” Marion said. “This is no time to be trying to edit or curate information.”