By Huckleberry Ulbricht
One thing essential to our republic is transparency in government. Another is the right to criticize the government. All too often local governments don’t like to be criticized by the public and go to great lengths to illegally silence that criticism as is the case with the City of Mauston. When a government operates a Facebook page and allows for people to comment, that government body is prohibited from hiding deleting comments that are critical yet leave comments of praise allowed to remain. That is called viewpoint discrimination and is a content based restriction, which is forbidden by the law. Silencing criticism makes it appear that the City is doing a good job when that may not be the case.
Under the law government bodies are required to maintain records, that includes electronic records such as posts and comments from social media accounts. The City of Mauston uses a subscription based service called Archive Social to back up all those posts and comments. 2 years ago a request was made after the city deleted a comment asking questions about the officers on leave. The City responded and sent a copy of the deleted comment which was backed up on Archive Social. Fast forward a couple years to a few months ago the Facebook group Concerned Citizens of Mauston made a request for copies of comments deleted and was told those types of records dont exist. We sent a copy of our response that shows they do retain such records. The group requested the deleted comments again with proof that they do retain such records and again was denied in their request.
We recently requested some other records, one such record included a copy of the contract the City has with Running Inc. After having applied for a taxi license and finding out Running Inc, the company that currently serves Mauston, was not obligated to follow the same requirements due to having a contract with the city. When requesting a copy of the contract we were told it doesn’t exist and the city refused to turn it over along with other requests. The City seems to have taken the stance that if the public wants records, they can seek legal action to get them. This does not bode well for the city however. The costs for defending themselves in legal action can cost the taxpayers of Mauston a huge amount, on top of paying for their own attorneys, they can be fined personally and the city can be forced to pay the requestor attorney fees, and punitive damages.
By all appearances and expressed concerns they are denying the records for copies of deleted comments to cover up 1st amendment violations. Doing so can be looked at in litigation as the 1st amendment violations having been willful. What it boils down to is people have a right to criticize the government. The government doesn’t have to like it but they are subject to accepting it. That includes when they open up for commenting on their social media pages. The City has since removed the ability to comment on most posts going back to 2019. Commenting is still open on older posts.
This is developing and more to follow. Information regarding being silenced during public comment period at city council meetings coming soon.