South Carolina Supreme Court rules school district violated open-records statute

SOUTH CAROLINA — The state supreme court ruled Monday that a school district violated the state Freedom of Information Act when it refused to release information about final candidates for a superintendent position.

“FOIA must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens to learn and report fully the activities of public officials,” the court wrote in its unanimous decision.

The case, which is the state’s first legal test of the Freedom of Information Act, started in 2003 when Spartanburg County School District No. 7 began its search for a superintendent.

Local newspaper The Spartanburg Herald-Journal filed a request for information pertaining to the final candidates under the state’s right-to-know statute, which requires public bodies to release information relating to “not fewer than the final three” candidates.

The district began its search with 30 applicants, according to the decision. The applicant pool was narrowed to five “semifinalists” and later to two “finalists.”

The district, which has an enrollment of about 7,500 students, promised the semifinalists that the names and information of only the “finalists” would be released. Because of this promise, the newspaper’s request was denied, according to the decision.

The Herald-Journal sued, and a circuit court found that the district had violated the state Freedom of Information Act, ordered the disclosure of additional information and awarded attorney’s fees and costs to the newspaper. The supreme court affirmed this judgment Monday.

South Carolina Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers said the decision is a big victory. It prevents one-finalist searches and ensures that people in the community have an opportunity to be involved in the hiring of public figures, he said.

“Public oversight is important, and this ruling makes sure it happens,” Rogers said.