S.C. Supreme Court allows radio host's public records lawsuit to proceed

SOUTH CAROLINA — A radio host’s 2009 public records lawsuit will get another look after the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case Wednesday.

The lawsuit stems from a 2009 public records request made by Rocky Disabato seeking documents that showed discussion between the South Carolina Association of School Administrators and then-Gov. Mark Sanford about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, as well as telephone records.

The association stated it was exempt from the state’s public records law because it is a nonprofit corporation, though Disabato argues the law applies because the association receives taxpayer money. The group also argued that the request infringed on their First Amendment rights. In 2011, the Richland County Circuit Court found in favor of the group on the First Amendment grounds and dismissed the case. 

In the ruling released today, the state’s Supreme Court didn’t rule on whether the group was a public body under the state’s records law, but did find that the act does not violate SCASA’s First Amendment rights. After today’s ruling, the case will go back to the circuit court for a ruling on whether SCASA is a public body.

The Supreme Court found that FOIA does not infringe SCASA’s First Amendment rights because it “is a content-neutral statute that serves important governmental interests and does not burden substantially more speech than necessary to serve those interests.” The Court also stated that, “the issue of whether SCASA is a public body can only be resolved after the parties have engaged in discovery, and at this procedural stage, we assume, but do not decide, that SCASA is a public body.”

Members of both sides said they were happy with today’s ruling.

“Today, SCASA is pleased that the entire South Carolina Supreme Court agreed with SCASA’s argument that the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) interferes with private organizations’ constitutional rights of speech and association when that private organization falls within the FOIA’s specific definition of a ‘public body,’” SCASA Executive Director Molly Spearman wrote in a statement. “We thus applaud the majority’s respect for the private rights of speech and association of SCASA and its members, along with the majority’s obvious concern that the FOIA not be spread into territory where it does not belong.”

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said he was glad to see erased a “dangerous trial court ruling, which put a dark cloud over the entire Freedom of Information law.” The SPLC filed an amicus brief on behalf of Disabato.

“If that ruling had held up then there would have been serious constitutional questions about whether you could ever enforce an open records or an open meetings law,” LoMonte said. “The idea that it somehow invades the constitutional rights of public officials to make them do their business in the open was a terribly dangerous idea.”

LoMonte said he feels “pretty confident” SCASA will be found a public organization, and that with so many foundations and associations making public education decisions it’s important that they be accountable to the public.

“So much education policy is being made by these quasi-governmental associations that are really public in every way except their corporate structure,” LoMonte said. “If they are doing the public’s business on the public’s time, then we should be entitled to know what they’re up to.”

Spearman disagreed, writing that SCASA funding comes from dues and that the association “does not receive general appropriations of any public funds for general support unconnected to specific purposes spelled out in the SCASA membership conditions.” The group is considering asking the supreme court to rehear the case, she said in the statement.

In addition to the SPLC, the South Carolina Attorney General, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, the South Carolina Press Association and the South Carolina Broadcasters Association filed amicus briefs on Disabato’s behalf.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1903 ext. 124.