Lafayette County Committee Wants To Control What's Said About Its Water Contamination Problem

Nov 12, 2019

Updated Wednesday at 9:12 a.m. CT

Leaders of a rural county in Wisconsin are not pleased with how the quality of its ground water is being reflected by local reporters.

Lafayette County seems like an idyllic rural spot in Wisconsin, but a local committee made waves Tuesday when it announced its board and any other officials need permission before talking about local water quality.

"Do I think this is a flagrant breach of the First Amendment? Absolutely," said Kriss Marion, a Lafayette County Board member who opposed the plan. "When you become a public official, you don't suddenly become, you know, hamstrung as to what you can talk about."

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that dozens of people attended Tuesday's committee meeting, with some accusing members of trying to hide information from the public.

"I'm abashed to be living in this county with this kind of stuff going on," Ginny Bean, of Argyle, said.

The fuss started with a recent study. It shows Lafayette along with a couple of neighboring counties have a private well contamination problem — 91% of the wells tested contained human or livestock fecal matter.

Initially, county officials planned to prosecute anyone if they reported anything not contained in the official press release. Instead, they are looking at ways to reprimand county employees if they comment on Lafayette’s water situation without permission.

The committee passed the rewritten resolution 5-2 on Tuesday morning. It forbids any "board member, committee member, county official or county employee" to make any public statement on the water study without approval of a "Review Board." It warns that violators "may be subject to discipline."

The Lafayette County Board was expected to take up the resolution Tuesday evening, but rather than vote, the board put off its decision on how to share information about the water quality study. The Lafayette County debate raised concerns about First Amendment protections for freedom of speech.

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