A couple of disputes surrounding state public information practices by school districts have recently shone light on the precarious balance between transparency and public safety as well as between transparency and government operational costs.
In Vermont, a lawsuit filed by Addison Rutland Supervisory Union against a student parent over a public records request was recently dismissed in court. The suit asked the court to decide whether a public records request placed by Marcel Cyr, a student parent and outspoken policy critic, had to be answered.
Cyr was seeking records relevant to a no-trespass notice issued by the union early in 2012, banning Cyr from all school property for two years. The record in question was a document created by a mental health professional in which she warned that Cyr could be dangerous to union employees. Cyr, who does not have a criminal record, says that his ongoing and vocal criticism of educational policy led the union to abruptly ban him without due process.
The union says that their lawsuit was solely for the sake of achieving guidance on whether or not the document containing advice from the medical professional was exempt, due to fears for the professional’s safety should her anonymity be disclosed. The Union says they first sought guidance from the attorney general’s office, who refused to help, after which they turned to the court for guidance. In its decision, however, the court said that it couldn’t make a determination because it would be contrary to statute and legislative intent.
Pietro Lynn, the union’s lawyer, explained that the union hadn’t sought damages against Cyr. “We never declined to provide him with the record: what we did was seek guidance before we had to make that decision.” However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont executive director Allen Gilbert says, “The supervisory union’s idea to sue someone who makes a public records request is a major threat to open government. The school’s strategy would place concerned citizens and news organizations at the potential peril of having to hire a lawyer and defend themselves every time they make a public records request.”
The ACLU views the suit’s dismissal as a clear victory for government transparency, reinforcing that only a citizen can sue a public agency over a request, and not vice versa. In contrast, Lynn views the case as a balancing act between transparency and safety, saying “This is a case where sometimes it is clear that sometimes concerns about safety and concerns about transparency can be difficult to balance.”
Meanwhile in Michigan, a dispute has arisen over whether the public has the right to know the cost of a FOIA beforehand.The Education Action Group filed a FOIA request from Muskegon public schools and then received a bill for $311.50. The bill is now 90 days overdue; “We’re not going to pay the bill,” said Kyle Olsen, EAG leader.
The FOIA request required Muskegon Public Schools to copy 1,246 pages of documents pursuant to the request, after which they billed EAG 25 cents per page for labor and copying costs. “The district is $4.5 million in deficit. I’m not going to give away a $300 document for free, so I’m going to charge $300,” says Muskegon Public Schools Superintendent Jon Felske.
Olsen says that the district should have said “’We estimate it’s going to be $311, do you want us to proceed?’ The short answer would be ‘no,’ because that’s outside our budget… We’ve never encountered a district that said ‘We’ve done the work, here’s the bill.” Felske counters that an organization that FOIAs as often as the EAG should know that public agencies are allowed to charge fees reflecting mailing costs, costs of duplication and cost of labor for record search and review. “[EAG officials] FOIA people all the time. When you spend your whole life FOI’ing, you know what the cost is,” Felske said.
Where do you think the balance lies between transparency and safety and between transparency and keeping costs down?