Transparency News 2/12/18

February 12, 2018
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state & local news stories
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Identical bills that would open public access to a state court records database sailed through the state Senate and House of Delegates on Friday, and they could soon land on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk. Inspired by the Daily Press’s two-and-a-half year legal fight to access these records, Senate Bill 564 and House Bill 780 both passed unanimously through their respective chambers. The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, which merged a similar bill from Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg. The House bill was sponsored by Dels. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and Greg Habeeb, R-Salem. The bills detail how court clerks should ensure access to their records and set rules for the first time on accessing records from general district courts, where misdemeanors and preliminary felony hearings are heard. It also makes the Virginia Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary (OES) responsible for public access to bulk data requests — a legal fight the Daily Press lost last year. Names would not be included in those bulk data requests, but case numbers would be.
Daily Press

Pittsylvania County has filed an open records request with the Danville Area Humane Society to determine the number of county animals still coming to the city shelter. Honoring the information request is estimated to come with a price tag to the county of $6,000. On Monday, Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman filed request for copies of all records of animals that were brought in by county residents over the last two years. State law requires these records be made open to public inspection, even if the animal shelter is a private business.
Register & Bee

The University of Virginia Police Department is using the social media monitoring program Social Sentinel in an effort to more effectively respond to threats made online. The program will cost UVa $18,500 a year, according to documents provided by the university. Legal experts say they’re concerned about privacy and creating a surveillance state, but police say the program is just one more tool in the race to stay on top of online threats and messages.
The Daily Progress

For years, student journalists in Virginia have been able to request students' addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses from their colleges and universities directories. House Bill 1 could change that. HB1 passed the Virginia House of Delegates on Feb. 7 with wide bipartisan support. The bill will now move to the Virginia Senate. While HB1 is a win for privacy advocates, its a potential loss for student journalists and others seeking addresses, phone numbers, and emails from student directories.  The bill would make it so college and university students have to "opt-in" for their contact information to be listed in directories. Right now students are automatically included in the directory unless they "opt-out." 
Student Press Law Center

In the hours after last summer’s white power rally in Charlottesville, Va., erupted into violence, the planners of the protest mounted a defense: While much of the country may have found their racist chants and Nazi iconography deplorable, they claimed that they had a First Amendment right to self-expression, and that none of the bloodshed was actually their fault. Six months later, that narrative of blamelessness, which started on the airwaves and the internet, is now being tested in the courthouse. In a direct assault on the so-called alt-right movement, a sprawling lawsuit contends that the leaders of the Charlottesville gathering engaged in a conspiracy to foster racial hatred, and are legally responsible for the 30 injuries and the death of a woman, Heather Heyer, that occurred.As the case moves forward, it is likely to explore the limits of the First Amendment’s broad free-speech provisions and the principle that incitements to violence are not protected. Discovery in the case may also expose the links between the far-right groups and their often opaque sources of financing.
New York Times
national stories of interest
What happens when you read aloud your state representative’s political donations from oil and gas corporations during a public hearing on a bill that will likely benefit those same oil and gas corporations? In West Virginia, you might get dragged out of the building. On Friday, members of the West Virginia House of Delegates cut off Lissa Lucas during her prepared testimony on a bill that would allow gas companies to drill on minority mineral owners' land without their consent. Lucas went on to read out political donations handed out by oil and gas companies to members of West Virginia's Republican-controlled lower house, including John Shott, head of the House Judiciary Committee. “John Shott. First Energy $2,000. Appalachian Power $2,000. Steptoe & Johnson—that’s a gas and oil law firm—$2,000. Consol Energy $1,000. EQT $1,000. And I could go on," Lucas said. That's when Shott cut her off. “Miss Lucas, we ask that no personal comments be made,” Shott said, to which Lucas replied, "This is not a personal comment." Shott disagreed. “It is a personal comment and I am going to call you out of order if you are talking about individuals on the committee," he warned. "If you would, just address the bill. If not, I would ask you to just step down.”

A growing chorus of Kansas Statehouse leaders is calling for revisions in a sweeping confidentiality agreement that legislative interns must sign. A Star investigation last month found that interns are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement that employment law attorneys warned could have a chilling effect on interns’ willingness to report harassment or illegal activity. Anything that takes place or is said in a lawmaker’s office must stay there, the document says, under threat of immediate termination.
Kansas City Star

quote_2.jpg"What happens when you read aloud your state representative’s political donations from oil and gas corporations during a public hearing on a bill?"
editorials & columns
quote_3.jpg"The desired change would create two classes of adults under state law: college students and everyone else."
Part of what makes good law — whether a legislature writes it or a court interprets it — is precision. It’s why Supreme Court justices in Richmond and in Washington so often insist that their opinions narrowly address the issue immediately before them. We’ve seen a good example recently in Richmond, involving an issue that this newspaper has pressed vigorously: the right of the public to see a public record of the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia. We got here by aiming precisely at a problem and talking seriously. We suspect it took some effort for the clerks to acknowledge that we had a point, because, frankly, it took some effort for us to acknowledge that they did.
Daily Press

Colleges will say it’s a much-needed privacy measure for students, as if administrators give a fig about student privacy. The real reason they’ll cheer this Virginia House-approved bill if it clears the Senate? It gives them an easy excuse for denying public records requests. The bill has understandable intentions behind it, prompted by a progressive advocacy group that obtained student contact information in bulk and gave it to political campaigns for voter-registration purposes.  But the desired change would create two classes of adults under state law: college students and everyone else, whose information would continue to be subject to FOIA requests. Greg Piper, The The College Fix

It's now been a year since the #USDAblackout—the sudden deletion of thousands of animal welfare-related records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) website with no warning and virtually no explanation. Despite swift and massive outcry from all corners—including Congress, the media, the public, animal protection organizations, and even industry—we're still in the dark about how the USDA is enforcing our nation's most important animal protection law—or if it even is enforcing that law.  This must change.
The Hill