Posts Tagged ‘Supreme Court’


FOI Daily Dose: South Carolina court rules public bodies cannot use First Amendment to evade FOIA

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled July 17 that organizations supported by public funds cannot use the First Amendment to evade the state Freedom of Information Act, according to Greenville Online.

The opinion echoed a 1991 Supreme Court ruling when The Greenville News sought access to records of a University of South Carolina foundation, and the South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA) claimed disclosing the information violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.

The 1991 ruling said organizations supported in whole or in part by public funds are public bodies subject to the FOIA.

But in the most recent legal dispute, radio personality Rocky Disabato claimed SCASA violated the public records law by refusing to meet his request for information about its role in a high-profile lawsuit against then-Gov. Mark Sanford over federal stimulus funds, according to The State.

The SCASA said state FOIA does not apply to them because even though they engage in public advocacy and receive some public funding, they operate as a non-profit organization, and the FOIA infringes their rights to free speech and association.

A Richland County Circuit Court judge agreed with the administrators and ruled that even though SCASA is a public body, it is not required to comply with FOIA laws.

Even so, the Supreme Court reversed the decision on grounds that the FOIA fosters trust in government and prevents fraud and corruption, The State said.

The court explained that without requiring public bodies to be subject to public scrutiny, agencies could “push agendas through third-party groups without scrutiny,” Greenville Online reports.

The court wrote: “If public bodies were not subject to the FOIA, governmental bodies could subvert the FOIA by funneling state funds to non-profit corporations so that those corporations could act, outside the public’s view, as proxies for the state.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Kaye G. Hearn recognized the negative impact the state FOIA might have on SCASA’s rights, and the court left it up to a lower court to decide if the SCASA is, in fact, a public body.

The decision said the FOIA does not apply to private entities that receive public funds for “a specific purpose,” such as a childcare center or healthcare clinic, The State said. Keith R. Powell, one of the attorneys representing SCASA, explained to The State in an email:

“The majority decision today is that IF a private entity is found to be a ‘public body,’ then it must still comply with the FOIA. The issue of whether or not SCASA is a ‘public body’ has not even been begun yet, and would be the subject of the remainder of the lawsuit back down in the circuit court . . . . Importantly, the court implicitly rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that merely receiving any payments from the government, and/or merely being given some role in a public advisory committee, would automatically make a body ‘public’ under the FOIA.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI Daily Dose: California Supreme Court rules digital maps not exempt from Public Records Act

California’s Supreme Court granted free public access to digital maps of Orange County once exempt as computer software and only available to business groups, according to Voice of OC.

The Sierra Club asked for access to digital maps called the OC Landbase in 2005 to study how to best manage open space parcels in public lands and create wildlife corridors.

But Orange County denied their request, claiming the maps were exempt from the California Public Records Act as the product of computer software.

Section 6254.9 of the Public Records Act says: “Computer software developed by a state or local agency is not itself a public record under this chapter. The agency may sell, lease, or license the software for commercial or noncommercial use.”

But in a June 8 ruling, the court determined that although computer software is still exempt from the Public Records Act, the product of that software—a GIS-formatted database called OC Landbase, in this case—is not exempt.

“I don’t think that government should be in the business of selling public records for profit,” Dean Wallraff, one of Sierra Club’s two leading attorneys, told Voice of OC.

County documents show the OC Landbase cost them $3.5 million to develop during the last five years,  and its licensing deals have brought in fewer than $1 million. That won’t even cover the $1-million legal tab racked up in the records fight. Voice of OC said the bill might fall to taxpayers.

The court opinion showed Orange County was one of nine counties not providing access to Geographic Information System-formatted parcel base maps.

Wallraff told Voice of OC this decision opens the door for other California counties to access their digital maps.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI DAILY DOSE: AP pushes for bin Laden photos, docs raise questions about D.C. cops, Elena Kagan

AP seeks bin Laden photos

Despite President Obama’s decision not to release post-mortem photos of Osama bin Laden, The Associated Press won’t give up the fight.

The Obama administration refused AP’s call for an expedited review of its FOIA request, so AP is appealing to the Department of Defense.

But AP isn’t just after the photos. It also wants other information about the bin Laden operation, including copies of the DNA tests proving that the man killed was bin Laden, contingency plans, and other video and photographs of the mission.

Police Escort Records

While it may be having trouble obtaining the bin Laden documents, another AP FOIA request revealed records from the Washington, D.C. police that show it’s not just top federal officials who receive law enforcement escorts.

Charlie Sheen, Bill Gates and singer Taylor Swift are among those who have received escorts that are supposed to be reserved for foreign dignitaries and major government officials.

The issue of celebrity escorts was thrown into the spotlight after Charlie Sheen publicized his April 19 escort by tweeting about the service. In one tweet posted with a photo via his yfrog webpage, Sheen wrote: “in car with Police escort in front and rear! driving like someone’s about to deliver a baby! Cop car lights #Spinning!”

While the services are paid for – police escorts run a rate of $55.71 per hour – they could go against protocol when used for professional athletes or other celebrities.

Police escorts are also allowed if there is concern for public safety or crowd control, which may make some celebrity escorts OK, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said in an interview with AP. Past services for entertainers or other celebrities will be evaluated based on the Charlie Sheen case.

Justice Kagan and Health Care Law

The AP isn’t the only organization making headlines with its FOIA requests.

A FOIA lawsuit filed in February by Judicial Watch and the Media Research Center may revive concerns about whether Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan should be involved in future cases involving the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010.

Documents provided due to the lawsuit show Kagan helped develop a legal defense for the law as solicitor general before she was appointed to the Supreme Court, according to an article from The Daily Caller.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

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