In July, the Idaho Press Club sued Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin over her office’s denial of several public records requests.
Several members of the press had sought public records regarding McGeachin’s Public Education Taskforce. McGeachin’s office said at the time they were trying to protect citizen’s private information to prevent potential retaliation for filling out the Education Taskforce’s “Feedback Form.”
4th District Judge Stephen Hippler sided with the Idaho Press Club and fined McGeachin $750, ordered her to pay the attorney’s fees for the Idaho Press Club, and ordered her to fulfill the public records requests.
The judge also ordered McGeachin to make the requests unredacted and also ordered her to disclose her agreement with the private firm that represented her in the case.
McGeachin had cited several laws and “executive privilege” to try and defend her position in redacting the documents, but the judge disagreed with her interpretation of those laws and said some of them were “plainly inapplicable.” The judge also said that McGeachin acted in “bad faith” in how the requests were handled or denied.
The judge concluded,
The disclosure of public records is prescribed by law, and fear mongering has no place in the calculus. 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. Because the Feedback Form comprised of three of the four requests and was the primary focus of the Petition, the Court finds that a civil penalty in the amount of $750 is warranted.
Idaho Dispatch reached out to Betsy Russell, President of the Idaho Press Club, to see if she or the IPC had a public statement about the lawsuit. Russell has not responded to our request at this time.
McGeachin’s office sent out the following Press Release in response to the judge’s decision:
Boise, Idaho — 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.
Our office has always worked to act consistently with the law as written, including receiving advice and counsel from the Attorney General’s office regarding the available exemptions to shield Idahoans’ personal information from misuse.
Despite this initial collaboration, the AG’s office disavowed its earlier legal recommendations without explanation and washed its hands of the issue, apparently willing to abandon Idahoans to harassment and threats.
In response to this dereliction of duty by the AG’s office, I had no choice but to seek outside counsel to represent my office. It is the responsibility of the AG’s office to provide sound legal advice — not to misdirect state officials and then to abandon their efforts. At minimum, such behavior gives the appearance of political maneuvering rather than a conscientious performance of duty. How can any duly elected official rely on the AG’s office under these conditions?
While we disagree with the court’s interpretation, the fact remains that, based on this ruling, Idahoans are now at risk. It is necessary for the legislature to act in order to definitively establish and clarify the right of Idahoans to communicate with their elected officials without having their personal information turned over to the media for misuse.
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. 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.
Who do you think was right in this case? Do you agree with the judge’s decision?
Let us know in the comments below.
Disclosure Note: I am an “Associate Member” of the Idaho Press Club.
Tags: Betsy Russell, Feedback Form, Idaho Education Taskforce, Idaho Press Club, Janice McGeachin, Stephen Hippler