It’s Open Season on Open Records
On April 19, the NC Supreme Court in Raleigh will begin to hear arguments about the accessibility of public records and the lengths that local municipalities may go to block that access.
The buzzwords here are ‘declaratory judgment,’ and if local governments have their way, then anyone who requests official records ‘— be they the media, private companies or ordinary citizens ‘— can be called to explain herself in front of a judge.
‘Declaratory judgment’ means that in each instance of a request, the municipalities can turn the matter over to the courts before surrendering the information, allowing judges to weigh each request on a case-by-case basis, creating time delays and also seeking to incur expenses on the requesters for legal representation.
The issue comes to light after Tom Boney, publisher of the Alamance News, asked the city of Burlington to disclose the minutes of a 2002 city council meeting that had been deemed a ‘closed’ meeting. Boney hinted that he might sue for the documents but instead found himself the defendant in a lawsuit filed by the city. Besides employing his own legal counsel, the city also expected Boney to pay its legal costs in the event of a judgment against him.
Judges eventually said that citizens can sue the government over records, but the city does not enjoy the same privilege. The case is still under appeal.
As a brief side note, a March 29 Associated Press story named the University of North Carolina as one of the proponents of declaratory judgment as it pertains to matters like these, but Leslie Winner, vice president and general counsel for the University, went on the record with YES! Weekly, saying that UNC ‘“has filed no Amicus briefs in support of Burlington, nor are we supporting legislation to allow preemptive lawsuits.’”
Still, we here at YES! Weekly cannot believe our eyes and ears.
Giving the government, at any level, the power to challenge every request for public records would be a frightening proposition ‘— certainly for journalists, who rely on the transparency of civic procedures for the basis of much of their reportage and criticism, but also for anyone who lives under the jurisdiction of a municipality.
That means all of us.
Like it or not, our system is based on checks and balances and it is the role of the press (and anyone else who wants to ask questions of their government) to demand accountability when something smells fishy. Allowing the government to file preemptive lawsuits against anyone asking for information is the equivalent of putting clothespins on all of our noses, clothespins that can only be removed after monetary expenditure and arbitration.
As journalists we have a problem with the city of Burlington and any other groups who seek to impede access to documents that are a matter of public record and meetings that discuss matters of the public interest. These municipalities show incredible gall and also, we suspect, harbor an inability to grasp the concept of ‘public record’ and the role the media plays as the fourth estate.
But we acknowledge that we live in an era when journalism is slowly morphing into propaganda ‘— witness the recent spate of television ‘news’ pieces and reports by media personalities that turned out to be commissioned by the federal government, or the study conducted last spring by the University of Connecticut which found that 36 percent of high school students thought that newspapers should get ‘government approval’ of news stories before they go to print.
We believe that the judges of the NC Supreme Court will disallow these preemptive lawsuits when they convene on the 19th, but we are alarmed that things have come to this.