SPJ supports Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s battle for public records
For immediate release
Hagit Limor, SPJ President, (513) 852-4012, firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew M. Scott, SPJ Communications Coordinator, (317) 927-8000 ext. 215, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is granting the Evergreen Freedom Foundation $1,000 for its pursuit of records regarding a ferry accident last year at Seattle’s Colman Dock.
The case is set go before the state appellate courts to determine whether a Federal regulation can be used to override the Washington State Public Records Act, keeping the documents sealed. Should the courts determine the regulation can be applied, SPJ feels this could set a precedent that would hurt public records access for state journalists.
"This request to a public agency for records impacting public safety seems to epitomize the reason for FOI laws. It's clearly in the public interest,” SPJ President Hagit Limor said. “The implications of this ruling could harm future reporting on a wider scale."
The state-operated ferry accident, involving the MV Wenatchee, injured one passenger and cost more than $327,000 in damages when it crashed into Coleman Dock. The foundation’s investigative journalist, Scott St. Clair, sent a public records request to the Washington State Department of Transportation for drug and alcohol test results of the crew involved in the collision.
WSDOT supplied records in response to the request, but some contained redactions – including a report titled “Report of Required Chemical Drug and Alcohol Testing Following a Serious Marine Incident.” This report was completed the day of the accident. The agency later removed some of the redactions following a request from the foundation, but it continued to withhold the results of the alcohol tests administered to the ferry’s crew.
The department believes that the redactions were justified because of a U.S. Department of Transportation regulation which prohibits the release of drug and alcohol testing records. When St. Clair made a second public records request for the investigative report written in response to the accident, the agency employed the same federal regulation to justify withholding additional documents.
The foundation filed a complaint with the Thurston County Superior Court, arguing that the Washington Public Records Act states that agencies are to grant public records upon request unless nondisclosure is necessary by an exemption within the Act or other statute. In a following motion for summary judgment to dismiss the department’s claim, the foundation argued that the redactions were unjustified because the state failed to cite a statutory exemption recognized under the Act to redact portions of records, and the federal regulation does not preempt the Act.
The trial court denied the motion on the grounds that the Act contains an exemption allowing for the use of the federal regulation. An appeal was filed with the Washington Court of Appeals, Division II, and the case will be heard in early 2011. The Foundation is also requesting an award of costs and penalties under the Public Records Act.
Through the Legal Defense Fund grant, SPJ supports the Foundation’s assertion that there is an argument for disclosure of the redacted information because the public has the right to know why their safety was jeopardized. Nondisclosure would harm the watchdog role of Washington journalists.
The SPJ Legal Defense Fund aids journalists in defending the freedom of speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment. Grant money can also be used to initiate and support litigation that enforces public access to government records and proceedings. For more information about the SPJ Legal Defense Fund, or to donate, visit www.spj.org/ldf.asp.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.