OREGON RESIDENT KIM Sordyl had a hunch. The outspoken education activist thought Portland Public Schools might be using lengthy and expensive paid leaves to avoid firing problem employees. So she filed a public records request, looking for data to back up her suspicion.
Instead of forking over the info--even after the county district attorney declared it part of the public record--the district sued Sordyl, along with a reporter who'd requested similar information, asking a judge to review the case in April.
Being named in a lawsuit for filing a public records request was "just more of the same" from a school system that "goes to great lengths to protect themselves and administrators at the expense of students, staff, and taxpayers," Sordyl says. But transparency advocates argue cases like hers are part of a disturbing trend in recent years of local governments filing suits against citizens to keep their doings secret.
In September, the Associated Press detailed several such cases. In one, an education watchdog in Louisiana was sued for seeking records about student performance. In another, college journalists in Kentucky requesting records about sexual misconduct investigations of university employees found themselves named in a suit.
These so-called "reverse FOIA" lawsuits have historically been filed at the federal level, usually by companies seeking to protect trade secrets. Third parties have also intervened in local cases, as when the Chicago police union sued the city to block the release to the Chicago Tribune of decades' worth of misconduct complaints. But experts say local governments have started adopting the tactic as well, asking judges to "clarify" public record law rather than simply deny requests under existing exempt ions.
Adam Marshall, an attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says the greatest danger posed by such actions is their chilling effect. "If you know as a citizen that if you just ask your government about what it's doing, they'll turn and sue you, there's lots of people who would reasonably not want to get involved with that," he says. "They don't have the time or resources to get in a protracted legal battle just because they want local property records or emails from their town council member."
Unlike typical government stonewalling tactics, which put the onus on requesters to sue for...