Open records are a key part of a transparent government, which means they’re a key part of a non-corrupt government. Open records allow private citizens and journalists to monitor just what the government is doing with their tax dollars. They empower watchdogs to keep an eye on things.
And it appears that some governments really don’t appreciate it.
An Oregon parent wanted details about school employees getting paid to stay home. A retired educator sought data about student performance in Louisiana. And college journalists in Kentucky requested documents about the investigations of employees accused of sexual misconduct.
Instead, they got something else: sued by the agencies they had asked for public records.
Government bodies are increasingly turning the tables on citizens who seek public records that might be embarrassing or legally sensitive. Instead of granting or denying their requests, a growing number of school districts, municipalities and state agencies have filed lawsuits against people making the requests — taxpayers, government watchdogs and journalists who must then pursue the records in court at their own expense.
The lawsuits generally ask judges to rule that the records being sought do not have to be divulged. They name the requesters as defendants but do not seek damage awards. Still, the recent trend has alarmed freedom-of-information advocates, who say it’s becoming a new way for governments to hide information, delay disclosure and intimidate critics.
“This practice essentially says to a records requester, ‘File a request at your peril,’” said University of Kansas journalism professor Jonathan Peters, who wrote about the issue for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015, before several more cases were filed. “These lawsuits are an absurd practice and noxious to open government.”
Officials of governmental bodies that have engaged in this tactic say that it’s best to let the courts decide whether to release the records or not — thus the lawsuits.
However, only an idiot can’t see the ramifications. People who suddenly find themselves being sued are often people who have no desire to pay for an attorney in order to get information that shouldn’t be that difficult to obtain in the first place.
Further, these government agencies apparently don’t have to pay the requester’s legal bills. This drastically increases the costs associated with records requests, which most states try to limit so as not to impose an undue burden on those requesting the records.
It looks like states with open records laws need to step up and make sure this kind of nonsense cannot continue. Unless, of course, they actually want corruption to run rampant.