FOIA: it doesn't matter who you are

Prince William County resident Mark Hjelm finally got his day in court April 14. And it was a pretty good day.


The aftermath, well, that’s not so pretty.


Hjelm has been locked in battle with the Prince William County School system for the past few years over Hjelm’s FOIA request to view visitor log data from the district’s Raptor visitor-identification system.


When Hjelm’s FOIA request was originally denied, he went to court. The case was dismissed because the school district convinced the judge that they had not been served with enough notice of the case. This prompted a bill in the 2009 legislature that attempted to clarify that FOIA’s procedures took precedence over civil procedure rules elsewhere in the Virginia Code.


The FOIA suit marched on. It was set, re-set, continued and so on for months. (In the meantime, a bill was introduced in the 2010 legislature to correct the unintended consequences of the 2009 bill, but there was never an agreement on exactly how or what should be corrected, so the bill was carried over for study in the FOIA Council).


Finally, on April 14, Hjelm and PWCS got their day in court. The judge ruled mostly in Hjelm’s favor, saying that the school district had to turn over the data -- it wasn’t exempt in its entirety from FOIA.


If the school redacts students names because of the family education privacy act, so be it, Hjelm told the News & Messenger. Hjelm said he wasn’t concerned with the parents or students visiting a particular school but individuals like guest speakers. And he remains concerned that the school division is not being forthcoming with how it’s spending taxpayer money.


The judge said the school district would also have to pay some, though not all of Hjelm’s legal fees.


PWCS hasn’t decided whether to appeal or not. In the meantime, though, the comments generated on the News & Messenger website are, in some ways, more disappointing than the school’s legal arguments -- at least those are based on different interpretation of what FOIA’s exemptions do and don’t cover.


Some admonished Hjelm to “get a life,” one lamented that the article didn’t “delve[ ] into why he wants the information.” Several took Hjelm to task for wasting taxpayer dollars by making the school district pay to defend his FOIA suit.


One commenter claimed that if the school visitor data showed that “person x” visited the school on a regular schedule, then a criminal could use that information to rob “person x’s” home while he was gone (no mention was made of the other people who might live at person x’s home who could repel an invader, nor of the criminal who simply sits outside person x’s home and watches him come and go at a particular time, as the slime ball in Dallas did to me when my house was robbed after I went to work).


One especially depressing comment encouraged people to exact revenge on Hjelm:


“What a waste of taxpayer dollars for no reason.  Take off your tin foil hats people.  There is no coverup of alien visitors from Mars visiting and being stored in Garfield High School.  This is just a busybody trying to abuse the system and we are all paying for it.  I hope somebody does $3,500 worth of damage to this guy’s house and cars to even things out.”


Here’s the bottom line: Hjelm used a 40-year-old law, FOIA, to access information that he, as a taxpayer, helped create and maintain. Every citizen in the Commonwealth has the same right to ask for the information.


It doesn’t matter why Hjelm wanted to see the information. He could create a blog, print it on pamphlets, shout it from the rooftops, paper his birdcage with it, or, just keep it for himself.


Imagine a system that operated otherwise.


Would the commenters who verbally whipped Hjelm prefer a system where school district (or any other government body) picks and chooses which individuals have made “legitimate” FOIA requests? Should there be a hierarchy of information that is deemed worthy of viewing? Should there be a pecking order for release of information based on what the requester intends on doing with it?


The commenters also seem to have missed the big point: a judge said PCWS was wrong to withhold the records.


Yes, taxpayer money was spent to defend Hjelm’s suit. But, according to a judge’s interpretation of the law, the school district could have avoided that expense if it had turned over these non-exempt public records upon request.


A lot of people personally attacked Hjelm. I’m not here to defend (or criticize) Hjelm’s character. What the people need to remember, though, is that FOIA is a law for everyone.


Government is supposed to turn over non-exempt records upon request (for a charge, if applicable). Lucky for all of us that it does not care whether we are Mother Theresa or Atilla the Hun. Whether we are Republicans, neo-cons, fascists, Democrats, liberals, socialists, communists. Whether we kick the cat on our way out the door, or stop to save the smallest turtle inching its way out into the road.


The public is the public is the public is the public.

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