South Carolina Association of School Administrators v. Disabato

460 Fed. Appx. 239 (4th Cir. 2012)

In December 2009, radio talk-show host Rocky Disabato requested records from the South Carolina Association of School Administrators about federal stimulus funding. Disabato argued that the association is a public entity since it receives government funds and is thus subject to the state’s freedom of information laws. SCASA contended that it is a private entity and thus not required to comply with the state’s public records law. In March 2011, a trial court held that since SCASA is technically a private nonprofit, it is not subject to FOIA requests. The court also said that requiring the group to comply with the public records law would violate the organization’s First Amendment right to not speak. The trial court’s decision was appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the SPLC filed its amicus brief.

The SPLC brief argued against the association’s assertion that it is not a public entity. While SCASA is technically classified as a private nonprofit, it receives public funds and lobbies for government agencies—the school boards and administrators that it represents. Its staff are covered under state dental and health plans and the group performs other governmental tasks. Because of this, the SPLC argued the group is subject to FOIA requests. In the brief, the SPLC argued that the trial court’s decision would imperil the ability of the press to serve as a government watchdog and cites a long history of cases where public officials have been found to be subject to increased oversight because of their position overseeing work for the public good.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, holding that FOIA only applies to government agencies, not “any corporation supported in whole or in part by public funds.” To apply FOIA to non-profits or private companies would chill free expression, the court said.