FOI Daily Dose: Louisiana’s public records victory points to larger abuses of the law
A panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge upheld a judge’s ruling that Louisiana State University is not privy to the governor’s office public records exemption, according to The Associated Press.
LSU was using the governor’s “deliberative process” exemption to hide the names of three dozen candidates in its closed-door search for a new president. They hired former University of California-Long Beach President F. King Alexander, who started in June.
The Advocate and The Times-Picayune filed lawsuits seeking names of the other candidates. But LSU board members said keeping the names quiet allowed sitting chancellors and presidents to avoid jeopardizing their current positions.
After district judge Janice Clark ruled in April that the records are public and must be released, LSU requested the 1st Circuit Court review the decision, according to the AP. The court panel on July 19 supported Clark’s ruling.
“This is very good news, and we are thrilled,” Lori Mince, an attorney for The Advocate, told The AP.
But Mike Hasten, capital bureau chief for Gannett Louisiana newspapers, said this victory for open government advocates is only one in a long list of exemption abuses. He published an editorial in The News Star on July 20 explaining the larger problem about how LSU and other agencies are wrongfully using an exemption for the governor’s office to keep sensitive material out of public view.
Governor Bobby Jindal backed legislation four years ago that removed a blanket exemption for the governor’s office from the public records law and replaced it with a provision called “deliberative process” that exempts “any documents or other types of communication used by the governor to make a decision,” Hasten said.
Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, told The Advocate lawmakers never intended the “deliberative process” claim to be used beyond the governor’s office.
The exemption specifically protects materials “relating to the deliberative process of the governor.” It said: “The provisions of this Section shall not apply to any agency, office, or department transferred or placed within the office of the governor.”
But even so, agencies using the exemption attribute their decision to a 2004 court ruling from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal that allowed the Public Service Commission to shield some records from a legislative auditor. The Advocate said this decision had nothing to do with the public records law.
“They’re doing something outside of what it was intended to do, and that needs to be addressed,” Danahay told The Advocate.
Hasten said it’s up to the public to assert the public records law and challenge agencies when they misuse it.
“Because they have not been legally challenged on that and until a court says they can’t do it, they probably will keep doing it in violation of state law,” Hastens wrote for The News Star.
An attorney for LSU told the AP that LSU will return to Clark in state district court for her decision on the damages and attorney fees.
The AP said LSU will get its chance to appeal the decision, but it’s unclear whether they will ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the issue.
Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.