BOISE – Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin has been ordered to turn over several public documents regarding her education task force to journalists after a judge found she had no legitimate reason to withhold the materials.
In a scathing written ruling made Thursday, 4th District Judge Steven Hippler said McGeachin’s attempts at withholding the documents from public view were so baseless and frivolous that her office should pay the Idaho Press Club’s legal fees plus an additional $750 penalty.
“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,” Hippler wrote.
The Idaho Press Club sued McGeachin in July, after several journalists said they were wrongly denied access to public records about her newly created Education Task Force charged with investigating alleged “indoctrination” in the state’s public school system. The journalists – Audrey Dutton and Clark Corbin with the Idaho Capital Sun, Blake Jones with Idaho Education News and Hayat Norimine with the Idaho Statesman – were generally seeking the copies of the public feedback on the task force that McGeachin’s office had gathered.
Idaho’s Public Records Act protects residents’ right to monitor state and local officials and agencies by providing access to government records. The law generally holds that government records are presumed to be open to the public, though it also allows some records to be kept confidential, like those that would interfere with active law enforcement investigations.
McGeachin’s office responded to some of the requests well past the time limits set by state law, and denied many of the records under a variety of exemptions. Her office also told some of the journalists the records would cost hundreds of dollars for redactions.
The exemptions that McGeachin cited in response to Dutton’s request were so irrelevant – including one specific to fishing and hunting licenses – that it appeared the lieutenant governor “may have blindly selected them at random,” the judge wrote.
McGeachin’s conduct was “deliberate and in bad faith,” Hippler said.
“It appears to the court that Respondent (McGeachin) would stop at nothing, no matter how misguided, to shield public records from the public,” he wrote.
The judge also called McGeachin out for attempting to “shame the media” in Facebook posts she made after Dutton filed her public record request. In that post, McGeachin claimed the Idaho Capital Sun intended to encourage employers or government agencies to retaliate against people who expressed concern with the public education system.
“The disclosure of public records is prescribed by law, and fear mongering has no place in the calculus,” Hippler wrote.
Organizations representing the journalists praised the ruling. Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh, who is chairman of the First Amendment Committee of the Idaho Press Club, said he hoped other public officials take note of the ruling.
“Obviously, we are very pleased with the decision and we look forward to the release of the public records that were requested,” McIntosh said. “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.”
Christina Lords, editor-in-chief of the Idaho Capital Sun, said public records are a vital part of contextual, fact-based reporting and government accountability.
“When elected officials aren’t transparent with Idahoans and disregard the laws they’ve sworn to uphold, the trust in their ability to carry out the public’s work through sound policy is eroded and ignored,” Lords said.
In a prepared statement, McGeachin claimed the judge’s ruling could subject Idaho residents to harassment by forcing the release of their “personal information,” apparently referring to optional fields on her public feedback form that included spaces where people could include their names and contact information.
“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,” she wrote.
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