Bill bars suits against records requesters

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 16, 2008

OLYMPIA – Spurred by Spokane Public Schools’ legal fight to withhold documents about the death of a student, an Olympia lawmaker on Tuesday filed a bill to bar government agencies from suing people who file public records requests.

“It’s outrageous for governments to sue the governed in order to maintain secrecy,” state Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, said in a statement Tuesday. “When governments can operate in the shadows on even life-and-death matters, it destroys the public’s confidence in government.”

He was referring to the six-year legal battle between the school district and The Spokesman-Review over witness accounts surrounding the 2001 death of 9-year-old Logan Elementary School student Nathan Walters.

Walters was severely allergic to peanuts, which school officials knew. But on a May 18, 2001, field trip to a farm, Walters was given the same peanut-butter-and-jelly lunch that everyone else got. He returned the sandwich and trail mix, but bit into the lunch’s peanut-butter cookie before realizing what it was. The ensuing allergic reaction killed him.

School officials contacted their attorneys, who hired a private investigator to interview more than two dozen witnesses. The newspaper sought access to those documents under state laws designed to ensure government accountability; the district refused. The school district then sued the newspaper to halt the request.

The case eventually made it to the state Supreme Court, which last month narrowly sided, 5-4, with the school district. The case was called Soter v. Cowles Publishing Co.

The school district had no immediate comment on the legislation Tuesday. Nor did the Association of Washington Cities, whose members frequently wrestle with disclosure issues.

But last month, associate superintendent Mark Anderson said the district filed the case because it wanted a judge to decide how to handle the request. With a student dead, it was clear that the district faced a lawsuit, Anderson said. And when such things happen, he said, school officials should be able to confidentially prepare for the case.

Williams’ House Bill 2839 bans government agencies from suing document requesters. People who are the subject of a request – such as a police officer whose file has been requested – would still be able to sue to try to keep the documents private.

Williams said the case is part of a pattern of local governments avoiding disclosure.

“It feels like walls are going up faster than we can tear them down,” he said. Three other lawmakers immediately signed on as co-sponsors, including state Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane.

The bill doesn’t deal with the potentially thornier issue of how much to shield the work of government attorneys from records requests. December’s high court ruling suggested that much of what government attorneys do is exempt. Some lawmakers and media groups have said that creates a dangerously easy way to keep investigations and other controversial matters secret: let the attorney do them.

Still, an editor at the newspaper and the newspaper’s lawyer on the case both said Tuesday that they’re encouraged by Williams’ legislation. Many people wouldn’t have the money and time to contest such a lawsuit, said attorney Duane Swinton.

“The newspaper was very disappointed and surprised by the Supreme Court’s ruling,” said Carla Savalli, the newspaper’s senior editor for local news. If things stand as they are, she said, agencies will be more likely to cut off access to documents and sue requesters.

“It completely runs counter to the public’s business being conducted in public,” Savalli said.

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