Administrative records more open in California

A California Court of Appeal’s decision to open investigative reports regarding a former school administrator to a local newspaper is a victory for both professional and student journalists in the state, the paper’s editor said. 

The 3rd District Court of Appeal required Dunsmuir Joint Union High School to open investigative reports compiled by Diane Davis, who was hired by the school board in May 2004 to investigate allegations of abuse and bullying against former Superintendent and Principal Bob Morris.

“I think [the case] breaks new ground in several areas,” said John Kelly, attorney for the high school. “The courts do their best to come up with a solution, and one I don’t necessarily agree with on all aspects, but they did what they did.”

The “solution” sheds new light on the definition of what records can become public after an investigation in California. The court’s decision differentiated between high-profile public officials and ordinary citizens, saying that holding the position of superintendent is high-profile enough to warrant public access to information. 

Complaints surfaced after Pam Padula, whose daughter attended the high school, alleged that Morris bullied her daughter in school. Davis’ reports included several interviews with parents and students regarding Morris’ behavior. She turned her reports over to the school in June 2004.

Two months later, Morris took a leave of absence until his official resignation at the end of the year. The reports detailed Morris’s resignation, including the school giving him a raise by $5,000 and buying out his contract, which the court referred to in its decision to open the records as a “sweetheart deal.”

The school had sealed the documents to the investigation and refused to disclose them when the Record Searchlight, the local newspaper in Redding, Calif., a town south of Dunsmuir, requested them. The newspaper sued in August 2004.

“The taxpayers should have a right to know what the deal was, what the allegations were and so on,” Record Searchlight Editor Kelly Brewer said.

In February 2005, the Siskiyou County Superior Court ruled that the reports were public, but also said that parts of the reports could be redacted. 

In June 2005, the same court ruled only portions of the reports could be disclosed.

After a lengthy appeals process, the newspaper was finally granted full access to the reports and awarded $30,000 in court and attorney’s fees.

Clearing up the law

But school officials appealed to the California Supreme Court in November, asking it to reconsider the lower court’s decision to release the reports in full, citing its need to “maintain the confidentiality of student records.”

Superintendent and Principal Len Foreman said the school board is reluctant to turn over the full records because it is concerned about maintaining the privacy of students named in the documents.

“With a small student body of only 106 students, the [school] board made [its] decision based entirely upon maintaining the privacy of students,” Foreman said. “Certainly not [the privacy of] Mr. Morris.”

The school board also asked to not pay the $30,000 awarded to the Record Searchlight because of its declining budget.

Despite the recent petition for review, Brewer said she remains confident that the case will stand because of its importance.

“We thought we could clear up some murky law in California if we got this thing decided,” Brewer said. 

Walter McNeil, the newspaper’s attorney, said he agrees that the case paves the way for access to more records dealing with public and school officials.

 “A person who has deliberately made themselves a public figure can’t expect the same degree of privacy about how they carry out their job than an ordinary person would expect,” McNeil said.

Although open records laws differ from state to state, all journalists, including students, have the opportunity to request access to public records. Unfortunately, Dunsmuir Joint Union student journalists are unable to benefit from the case, because the school did not produce a 2006-2007 student newspaper.

The paper’s former adviser, Scott Porter, said it was “a matter of numbers” and “the school board’s decision.”

Porter declined to comment on the case.

While student journalists are not always successful in their efforts to access school records, advocates from First Amendment organizations said this court decision could spur students to renew certain efforts involving high-profile school officials when their initial records requests were denied.

David Hudson, a First Amendment Center research attorney, said the case is “good for student media” and very significant.

“It recognizes important public interests and informs the public about the performance of public officials and potential wrong-doings of public officials,” Hudson said.

Karl Olson, an attorney with Levy, Ram & Olson, a San Francisco law firm active in First Amendment and Freedom of Information Act litigation, said California’s influence could affect future decisions in other states. 

“It is definitely a step in the right direction for the law under the California Public Records Act, not just for student journalists but for journalists throughout the state,” Olson said. “I think it’s going to be most influential in California, but other states have public records acts and I think California is certainly influential around the country.”

Privacy concerns

As principal of Dunsmuir High School, Foreman said he understands the public’s desire to know about high-profile dealings. 

He said he feared this case could breach student privacy, but the high school will not implement any new policies to combat those concerns in the future.

“This case is not the norm in our community,” Foreman said. “I don’t think we need to have new policies enforced.”

According to California First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Peter Scheer, schools across the country commonly refuse to disclose reports explaining changes in positions of local officials. 

Scheer said that more often than not, school officials will not say or release anything about such matters, benefiting themselves, not the public.

“They’ll use whatever legal tricks are available because the impulse to keep things secret is a strong one,” Scheer said. “They are excessively worried about liability and intimidated by lawyers representing school officials.”

Scheer said he commends the efforts of the newspaper in Redding and referred to the ruling as “a well thought-through appellate decision” in which the court balanced “the private interest in keeping information confidential versus the public interest in the public domain,” which he said, “clearly favors disclosure.”

Brewer said she also advocates for further action in ensuring public records remain as they are – public.

“As student and professional journalists, we have a duty to press these issues, to keep records open. I hope it encourages people to take action when they see things that don’t look right,” Brewer said. 

“We do this on behalf of the public, especially journalists and student journalists, because we can and we should.”