Secret Settlement Undermines Public’s Right to Know Says SPJFOI ALERT
For more information, contact SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee Co-chairs:
Charles Davis: 573/882-5736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Joel Campbell: 801/422-2125 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS – The settlement of a lawsuit filed by a former town employee against the Town of Knightstown, Indiana, is being kept secret, denying the public access to key documents in a case of great public interest, the Society of Professional Journalists says.
In a press release prepared by attorneys representing the town, attorneys Greg Crider and David Copenhaver said that it was cheaper for the town to settle the lawsuit brought by GiGi Steinwachs, a former dispatcher with the Knightstown Police Department against the town, the police department and several individual defendants. The agreement states specifically that no information about the settlement will ever be released.
The tactic used by the Town of Knightstown is simple: by creating no written memorialization of the settlement, the town argues that it can avoid disclosure of the settlement as otherwise mandated by Indiana’s public records laws. This tactic, if allowed by Indiana officials, will serve as a model for other municipalities seeking to enter into secret settlements with future litigants.
There are many sound reasons why settlement agreements between municipalities should remain public records. First, even if the settlement is paid out of a town insurance policy, local taxpayers foot the bill for such claims in the form of higher payments, and thus have every right to know how and why their insurance policies are being tapped. Second, the claims brought by Steinwachs – allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, not to mention claims that she was assaulted, had her constitutional rights violated and was subjected to unlawful employment practices – cut to the very heart of why public records laws exist. The public and the press must be able to monitor the actions of town officials, determine which claims had a basis in fact and engage in the political process fully informed of the nature of the claims.
The Knightstown Banner has requested all of the pertinent documents from the town council, the police department and Crider, and each request has been denied. Town officials notified the newspaper that there was no written agreement to be disclosed in response to the request.
“Legal trickery must not subvert the will of the people of Indiana, as expressed by the state’s public records law, which in no uncertain terms declares that such an agreement is public in nature,” said Charles N. Davis, co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “The state’s law says clearly that ‘it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government.’”
In a letter to the Knightstown Banner, Davis and Joel Campbell, co-chairs of SPJ’s FOI Committee, wrote:
“SPJ is deeply concerned with the precedent set by a denial of access predicated upon such dubious legal finery: the calculated creation of a non-written agreement serves no citizen of the state of Indiana, save for the official involved, and should in no way frustrate the clear intent of the public records law that such settlement agreements are public occurrences, written or not.
“It would be unwise to consider the public records law the sole source of a right of access to settlement agreements. It is our position that the right to ‘full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of … public officials and employees’ has its basis in the Constitution of the State of Indiana, the Constitution of the United States and in certain unalienable rights that exist independent of those two documents. There also exists a powerful common law right of access to judicial records.
“To allow a municipality to circumvent the state’s public records law by such a cynical ploy is to ignore the very existence of the public records law. We believe the people of Knightstown, Indiana have a right to know the terms of the settlement agreement ending litigation between a former town employee and the town, its police department and several former and current employees of the police department. We will be watching your challenge closely and stand ready to assist you. You are serving your readers well in the best reflection of the power granted the press through the First Amendment.”
SPJ urges the Town of Knightstown to immediately reverse its indefensible secrecy and let its citizens in on the secret settlement.
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, 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.
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SPJ FOI Alert Vol. 9; No. 4
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