Stripped of access? Iowa court decides there’s no right to know how strip-search violators were punished.

In a split decision, Iowa’s Court of Appeals has refused to order a public school to disclose records documenting the disciplinary action imposed on two employees who improperly strip-searched female students to look for stolen money.

The case, ACLU Foundation of Iowa, Inc. v. Atlantic Community School District, has the potential to narrow journalists’ access to important documents necessary to evaluate the performance of government officials, if the ruling is not successfully appealed.

The matter involves the August 2009 strip-search of five students at Atlantic High School in southwestern Iowa. The families of three of the victims sued, challenging the search as a violation of the students’ Fourth Amendment rights, and obtained financial settlements and an acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the district.

The school’s principal released the names of the two perpetrators (one of whom has since left the school) and promised discipline, but the nature of the disciplinary action was never disclosed. The ACLU filed a request under the Iowa Open Records Law for documents disclosing the disciplinary action, but the district refused, relying on an exemption that allows agencies to withhold “[p]ersonal information in confidential personnel files(.)”

Wednesday’s 2-1 ruling revolved around the meaning of that exemption.

To the court’s majority, the disciplinary records were no different than employee job performance evaluations, which the Iowa Supreme Court decided in 1992 were exempt from disclosure under Iowa Code 22.7(11), the “personal information” exception.

To dissenting Judge Amanda Potterfield, that exemption does not categorically place all personnel documents off-limits. Rather, Potterfield wrote, the agency is required to engage in a balancing test that looks at the public’s interest in transparency versus the individual’s interest in privacy. Given that the school had already (a) identified the employees and (b) disclosed that some discipline occurred, Potterfield suggested that the balance here should tip in favor of disclosure:

While the disciplinary measures may implicitly contain information regarding the job performances of the two individual employees, the privacy interests implicated here, the measures relate most directly to the response of the school district in which the public has a legitimate interest.

This is an essential point that the majority missed. The public’s interest in a job performance evaluation is to determine whether that particular employee is doing a good job. But the public’s interest in a disciplinary record — particularly the record of someone no longer at the school — is primarily to determine whether the top officials of the district are carrying out their supervisory duties properly.

Judge Potterfield’s dissent reflects a superior understanding of the law and its purposes. The fact that the legislature did not say that “personnel files” are confidential — only that “personal information” in those files is confidential — should have been decisive. The most logical understanding of that phrase is that the Iowa legislature intended to preclude access only to Social Security numbers, home addresses and other types of truly “personal” information — as opposed to “professional” information in which the public has a legitimate interest.

It is hard to think of a piece of information in a personnel file in which the public would have a greater interest than to know whether school officials who violate the legal rights of kids are being sufficiently punished. And after the court’s Oct. 19 ruling, it is now hard to think of any piece of information in a personnel file that a requester will ever be able to obtain.

It appears that the majority has rewritten the law into an outright ban on access to any documents in employee personnel files. That view dangerously upsets the careful balance that the legislature struck in Section 22.7(11) by selectively exempting only the most sensitive and least newsworthy information from disclosure.