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McGeachin must release Idaho indoctrination task force records to public, judge rules

Aug. 26, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 26, 2021 at 4:57 p.m.

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, center, and Rep. Priscilla Giddings speak on May 27 during their first education indoctrination task force meeting at the Idaho Capitol.  (Nik Streng/Idaho Education News)
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, center, and Rep. Priscilla Giddings speak on May 27 during their first education indoctrination task force meeting at the Idaho Capitol. (Nik Streng/Idaho Education News)
By Nicole Blanchard Idaho Statesman

Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin must release public records related to her indoctrination task force to local reporters and pay a civil penalty after initially declining to release the documents, a judge ruled Thursday.

The ruling comes about one month after the Idaho Press Club sued McGeachin on behalf of four Idaho reporters, saying she violated Idaho’s public records law by refusing to share the information.

Ada County Fourth District Judge Steven Hippler ordered McGeachin to release the responses to a Google Form survey she created to solicit feedback from the public on Idaho’s education system. Hippler also ordered McGeachin to pay the Press Club’s legal fees and pay a $750 civil penalty for denying the records “deliberately and in bad faith.”

The lawsuit was based on records requests made by four local journalists: Audrey Dutton, of the Idaho Capital Sun; Blake Jones, of IdahoEdNews; Clark Corbin, of the Idaho Capital Sun; and Hayat Norimine, of the Idaho Statesman.

Dutton, Jones and Norimine had requested copies of the responses to the Google Form survey. McGeachin’s chief of staff, Jordan Watters, told the reporters that personally identifying information in the submissions needed to be redacted and said further information could be redacted on the basis that respondents were writing to a legislator — Priscilla Giddings, the chair of the task force.

Hippler ruled that neither of those provisions applied.

Corbin requested invoices and contract information between McGeachin’s office and Colton Boyles Law Firm, where Dutton was directed to take further questions when her records request returned heavily redacted documents. Hippler ruled that Corbin’s request must be filled only partially.

In the ruling, Hippler blasted McGeachin’s actions, calling the exemptions her office cited “frivolous” and saying she acted in bad faith when refusing to release the records.

Hippler wrote that it appeared McGeachin “would stop at nothing, no matter how misguided, to shield public records from the public.” He specifically pointed to posts McGeachin made on social media following Dutton’s request.

“Why does the media want YOUR personal information?” McGeachin wrote. “Do they plan to release it and encourage employers and government agencies to retaliate against Idahoans who have expressed concerns about Idaho’s education system? I believe that releasing this information would have a chilling effect on YOUR right to communicate your concerns to elected officials in Idaho.”

“The disclosure of public records is prescribed by law, and fear mongering has no place in the calculus,” Hippler wrote. “If public officials were required to disclose public records only to those, including media, they believe will support the government’s actions, we will have shed the principles of our democracy and evolved into an autocratic state where criticism of public officials is not permitted.”

McGeachin’s task force was holding its final meeting — and taking public testimony at that meeting — on Thursday afternoon when the judge’s decision arrived.

Representatives from the Press Club said the rulings were bittersweet.

“Obviously, we are very pleased with the decision and we look forward to the release of the public records that were requested,” said Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh, who is chairman of the First Amendment Committee of the Idaho Press Club, which brought the lawsuit. “We’re just disappointed that it took so much time and effort and a lawsuit to obtain records that could and should have been easily released months ago.”

McIntosh said the outcome should serve as a primer for future public records issues.

“I hope that it’s a decision that other public officials read closely and learn from when processing a public records request in the future,” McIntosh said.

In her own response issued Thursday afternoon, McGeachin doubled down on her claims that reporters would “misuse” the information from the records.

“After months of fighting to protect your data, the court has ruled that our office must release personal information on thousands of Idahoans to the media, where it has the potential to be misused to harass Idahoans who speak out on controversial issues,” McGeachin’s statement said.

She also called out the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, which she claimed offered legal guidance on the records exemptions before it reversed course and “disavowed its earlier legal recommendations without explanation and washed its hands of the issue, apparently willing to abandon Idahoans to harassment and threats.”

McGeachin went on to claim that the ruling leaves Idahoans “at risk” and called on the Idaho Legislature to clarify laws exempting communications between citizens and their elected officials.

“History shows that the media today often acts as a chilling force to intimidate and silence those who think and speak outside of the approved borders of public opinion,” she said in the statement. “It is for this reason that Idaho must take legislative action to shield the personal data of Idahoans when they are communicating with their elected officials.”

McGeachin and Giddings are the only statewide elected officials on the task force; the other 14 members are not.

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