Officials want to close your access to open records

Government officials often tout the line “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” in response to news about one government spy program or another. However, many of these same officials will do everything in their power, including filing lawsuits, to prevent you from knowing what the government is doing. The Columbia Journalism Review reports in March of this year “Harry Scheeler Jr. sent a request to Hamilton Township [NJ] for surveillance footage of the town-hall and police-department buildings, making the request under the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the state common law right of access to public records. A few weeks later, instead of responding to the request, the township sued Scheeler and asked a local court for relief from any obligation to respond, then or in the future. The township also asked for attorney’s fees.”

Scheeler narrowed his request, however the lawsuit wasn’t dropped. CJR adds “a judge did, temporarily, relieve the township from any obligation to respond. Scheeler countered that only the requester, not the government, could initiate a public-records lawsuit.” The case moved to a different judge who ruled, “A government … lawsuit against … requestors [sic] subjects them to involuntary litigation with all of its.. financial, temporal, and emotional trimmings. A public policy that gives a government agency the right to sue a person who asks for a government document is the antithesis of the [public records law providing] citizens with a means of access to public information to keep government activities open and hold the government accountable.” Scheeler was also encouraged by the court to seek attorney’s fees, though the court did not specifically order the municipality to respond to Scheeler’s public records request.

Meanwhile in Sacremento, Mayor Kevin Johnson – who apparently failed to get the memo from New Jersey that it’s not proper to file a lawsuit against a public records requester – has filed a lawsuit against not only the journalists who filed the request but also his own city. News10 in Sacremento reports, “Johnson said that the emails he sent while he was involved with the National Conference of Black Mayors (NCBM) were private. According to news reports, while Johnson was president of the NCBM, members challenged whether his election was valid, some claimed he used his position to promote a business operated by his wife Michelle Rhee. Johnson wants to keep emails between him and the NCBM’s attorneys private.”

TechDirt reports that Johnson is claiming the emails are not public record “and maintains it has nothing to do with his highly-disputed, exceedingly brief tenure as the president of the [NCBM]. This assertion would carry a bit more weight if (a) his time at the helm of the NCBM wasn’t marked by allegations of abuse of his position to support his wife’s business and career, and (b) if he hadn’t previously admitted – on record – that he had destroyed documents subject to public records requests.”

Another more high profile government official caught using a private email account was Hillary Clinton. The House Judiciary Committee sent a subpoena for the emails, she claims she never received it, and now all of her emails are being released in batches. I have no desire to read any of her emails, or most government records, however I find it interesting that many government officials make it difficult to obtain the public records I do want to read. When one government agency hinders or denies access to public records, you go to another government agency (the courts) to ask for relief. It should not be difficult to request, find, or obtain government records especially in the “information age.”

The people who have done the most to provide public records and information on government activity (eg. Private Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden) have been attacked and punished for doing so, yet people like Hillary Clinton do not see the irony of saying “So the government knows who you phone, email and tweet. So what, as long as you’re not doing anything wrong why should you care?”