Transparency News 2/24/20



February 24, 2020

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state & local news stories



A federal judge in Virginia has ruled that the First Amendment guarantees a qualified right to access newly filed civil lawsuits on the day they are filed. The judge also declared Friday that state court officials in Norfolk and Prince William County deprived a court news service of that First Amendment right for several months starting in January 2018. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Courthouse News Service after its reporters were forced to wait for court clerks to docket and scan complaints before making them available on public computer terminals.
Associated Press
Read the opinion on VCOG's Google Drive

The Virginia Supreme Court is expected to hear long-anticipated oral arguments in a case that takes up the county board of supervisor’s transparency next week. The justices are set to hear arguments in the case Feb. 26. In the matter, Beverly Cole, both individually and as president on behalf of the non-profit Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library, alleges that Smyth County Board of Supervisors violated the commonwealth’s sunshine law when its members discussed dissolving the Smyth-Bland Regional Library behind closed doors without properly disclosing the subject of their discussion. Last week, the supervisors took up the case in another closed door session in which some board members apparently put forth the idea of settling the lawsuit. However, when supervisors returned to open session, they voted 5-2 to not settle and take the case to trial, retaining Jeff Campbell to represent them in the case.
Smyth County News & Messenger
Spring break marks a different deadline on many college campuses this year: In addition to the halfway point in the semester, U.S. Census Bureau officials and partners see the middle of March as a crucial time to reach students who must mark their residence before they leave for the summer. College students who do not live with family are counted in two buckets, depending on their living situation: If they live in university-provided housing, the university takes the lead on compiling their information, which may happen through questionnaires distributed in dorms or via an electronic transfer of records. If they live in private off-campus housing, they must fill out the regular census form that describes themselves and others who live in their “household,” such as roommates. The 2020 census form “asks for information about the student’s sex, Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin and race,” stated the original memo, issued on Jan. 14. “However, school officials may not disclose this information, without prior written consent from the student.” Then, after universities questioned how to enact such a policy, a department official sent a follow-up memo saying schools are allowed to furnish such data if “such data is de-identified.” Similarly, a 2018 bill by Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, that makes student directory information opt-in should not hinder Virginia universities’ ability to share student records with the census — and in an email, Wilt noted that another bill, passed in the 2019 session, requires universities to share such information with appropriate state and federal agencies, as applicable, even if a student hasn’t opted in.
The Daily Progress

The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors established a list of strategic priorities for the next two years. One of the items: “Improve relations between the County and its citizenry.” “We want to do a better job getting information into the hands of our citizens so they can make more informed opinions about the challenges facing the county,” said Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman. Right now, the county does not have a centralized department or person responsible for sending out information to residents. Instead, each department has to provide their own updates, or no information is distributed at all. Part of their goal is to change that structure by hiring a public information officer.
Register & Bee

Jason Kessler, the organizer of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was rebuffed by a federal court judge Friday in a civil suit he brought against the city. Senior U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon dismissed a lawsuit in which Mr. Kessler, a self-described “pro-white” activist, alleged that the city of Charlottesville had violated his First Amendment rights by allowing fights to break out on the day of the event between participants and counter-protesters, causing authorities to declare an unlawful assembly and ultimately resulting in the rally ending early. “While Defendants did, of course, have a constitutional obligation to refrain from restricting Plaintiffs’ speech on account of the threat, or possibility, of public hostility to their Alt-Right message, the law is clear that Defendants had no constitutional obligation to prevent that public hostility,” ruled the judge, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton.
The Washington Times

stories of national interest

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) faulted the pilot of the helicopter that crashed in January killing basketball great Kobe Bryant and eight others for violating flight rules in a 2015 incident. The FAA said Ara Zobayan was piloting an AS350 helicopter in May 2015 when he violated rules governing the airspace around Los Angeles International Airport. Zobayan was expecting clearance through the airspace but air traffic control declined to approve the request because of reduced visibility due to weather, according to enforcement records released by the FAA under the Freedom of Information Act late Friday.
The New York Times