WASHINGTON — Following a four-year court battle, a state judgeordered a school district to pay more than $58,000 to the American CivilLiberties Union in March for refusing to mail the organization 13 pagesof public documents.
The ACLU of Washington requested documents describing school districtpolicies and copies of disciplinary records in December 1995 from BlaineSchool District in northwest Washington. The district agreed to let theACLU view the documents in Blaine but refused to put them in the mail despitethe ACLU’s offer to pay for copying fees and postage.
“Our concern was and still is what do you do the next time someone comesalong and their request is for 20 pages or 50 pages or 500 pages of documents?”said district lawyer Tim Slater. “We felt that making the records availablefor inspection and copy strikes a balance between the burden on the agencyand places some responsibility on the requesting party to show up, reviewit for themselves and decide if they really want all that paper.”
The ACLU requested the records after parents of a Blaine student contactedthe organization with concerns over disciplinary actions the district hadtaken against their son, said Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington.The ACLU sued in Whatcom County Superior Court after the district refusedto mail the records, but the judge ruled in favor of the district.
The county court’s decision was overturned by a Seattle appellate court,which said the district was “effectively denying access to the records”by refusing to mail them.
“The court saw that we’re in the post-pony express era and that it’spretty reasonable to mail things, especially if it will facilitate citizens’ability to get documents and learn what the government’s doing,” Honigsaid.
“The appeals court said that under the particular facts of this casethe district was required to mail the records,” Slater said. “But by leaningon the facts of this case alone it doesn’t provide any guidance to agenciesin the future that are faced with onerous public disclosure requests formaybe hundreds of documents and are asked to mail them.”
Honig said the school’s position becomes an obstacle for citizens whomight not have access to transportation, such as the elderly or disabled.
“There are all kinds of reasons why it may be hard for someone to showup and physically get the documents,” Honig said. “It’s perfectly sensible.Since you have a good postal system, you might as well take advantage ofit.”
The Seattle appeals court fined the district $10 a day and asked theappeals court commissioner to decide what the district should pay in attorney’sfees and costs to the ACLU. The commissioner ordered the district to paythe ACLU $58,575.
“It’s important for any citizen to have reasonable and ready accessto government documents, and this court decision reinforces the fact thatit’s the responsibility of school districts to provide that cooperation,”Honig said.