Wisconsin legislators blasted for journalism center eviction

Emails blast alleged targeting of Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Written by George LeVines
Edited by Tom Nash

As Wisconsin legislators finalized a state budget bill in the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 5, a provision suddenly appeared that would evict an investigative journalism non-profit from the University of Wisconsin campus and prohibit university faculty from collaborating with the organization.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism occupies two small rooms in the university’s mass communications department. The Center’s muckraking is offered for syndication and has no direct cost to taxpayers. It also employs — and pays — student interns while providing resources for journalism classes.

“As students and graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who have previously interned, worked at or collaborated with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, we can attest that the award-winning Centers’ Presence on campus has been fundamental to helping us begin our careers as journalists,” stated a letter from the Center in opposition to the provision.

The provision passed along party lines (12 Republicans, four Democrats) and made its way into the 2013-15 budget bill, which must pass through the state assembly and senate before appearing before the line item veto power of Gov. Scott Walker.

Because Wisconsin’s legislature is among the majority that subject their state’s governing body to an open records law, it’s possible to follow what the Joint Finance Committee has been saying — or reading — as reactions roll in.

Freedom of Information requests for communications from the committee responsible for the provision reveal emails that range from citizen reactions to news summaries discussing the banishment. Included in the latter category is a news story summary email, generated by WisPolitics, in which Center Director Andy Hall ascribes motivation for the provision to an earlier investigation from the Center into emails from JFC Co-Chair John Nygren.

The documents provided in response to the requests so far include emailed objections from citizens, other open records requests, news summaries mentioning the provision and a letter signed by current and former WCIJ staff members.

“Luther, Why this action? If the Republicans want to bar one nonprofit from campus, then they must insist that all nonprofits leave,” stated one email to State Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon).

A letter to Rep. Dean Kudson (R-Hudson) is more forceful, reading, “what are legislators doing sticking their noses into UW and trying to eliminate the Center for investigative journalism? Talk about petty.”

Of the 16 committee members, four have sent back records, five have said they possess no documents responsive to the request and seven remain outstanding.

You can follow the 16 requests associated with members of the JFC below:

Senate Members

Assembly Members

Read the emails embedded below, or on the request page.


Image via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0