Transparency News 5/14/19



May 14, 2019


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state & local news stories



"When a person is blocked or banned from a social media account associated with a government official, their ability to express their views is hindered."

Could deleting comments on your Facebook page or blocking an account be considered a violation of someone's freedom of speech? Well, if you're an elected or government official it could be.  Back in January, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that a Loudoun County public official violated the First Amendment rights of one of her constituents when he was temporarily banned from her county office Facebook page. Two years ago when this case was initially filed, the ACLU of Virginia started sending out letters to lawmakers telling them that blocking accounts or deleting opposing viewpoints from official government public pages could become a legal issue.  In total, the ACLU of Virginia sent out letters in 2017 to all 13 members of Virginia's congressional delegation. This year alone, the organization has mailed six letters, to Del. Todd Gilbert (R-District 15), Goochland County Sheriff Levin White, U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-District 5), Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-District 17), and within the past week to Del. Chris Peace (R-District 97) and Sen. Amanda Chase (R-District 11).  Attorney Russ Stone says when a person is blocked or banned from a social media account associated with a government official, their ability to express their views is hindered and thus their free speech is being violated. If it's a campaign page, that's different because the candidate hasn't been elected yet.  When it comes to the comments themselves, it's a little more complicated. The ACLU of Virginia says the Davison vs. Randall case's interpretation on the First Amendment can apply to both blocking constituents' accounts and deleting their comments. 

The Richmond City Council on Monday approved a budget with a new cigarette tax. Monday’s vote took place with no discussion from council members and occurred without the drama that cropped up during the council’s budget review process. The mayor’s proposal for a tax hike had drawn sharp criticism from some council members, who said city homeowners were already facing higher property tax bills because of rising assessments. Tensions boiled over at the end of last month, as the council moved to cut city operations in an effort to balance the budget without the real estate tax increase. The Stoney administration then threatened not to certify more than $9 million in new revenues the council planned to use to balance the budget, and administrators walked out of an ongoing council meeting. After the walkout, a majority of the council voted to pursue outside legal counsel, a step that could have pitted the council against the mayor, in preparation for a legal fight over the revenues. The spat was resolved by the time the council reconvened the following week. Stoney agreed to certify the revenues, and the council decided to cut capital spending and funding for vacant positions instead of implementing across-the-board cut to city departments.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Last year, one of us filed a “meta-FOIA” request with Benjamin Wittes seeking information on how former CIA officer and then-congressional candidate (now congresswoman) Abigail Spanberger’s unredacted SF-86 form was released in response to a right-wing advocacy group’s FOIA request. We petitioned both the National Archives and Records Administrations (NARA) and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), each of which had played a role in the release. The NARA responded first, providing us documents that confirmed that it had transferred the incoming request to the USPS, which had collected and retained the SF-86 in the course of Spanberger’s application for a position as a postal service investigator. But now we’ve heard back from the USPS as well. In response to our request, the USPS provided us with more than 400 pages of responsive records, divided into two tranches: one covering FOIA requests regarding Spanberger, including requests regarding how the USPS processed the request that led to the disclosure of the SF-86; and the second covering internal discussions regarding that initial FOIA request and the response to it


stories of national interest

When the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request on time, it also forfeited the right to demand nearly $20,000 in copying fees from the requester, a state appeals court has ruled. The Illinois Second District Appellate Court overturned a ruling by DuPage County Circuit Court Judge Paul Fullerton that found the office was entitled to its statutory copying fees even though it did not respond to the FOIA request for more than six months. Under FOIA, a public body has five business days to respond to a FOIA records request by either fulfilling it, denying it or asking for more time. According to court documents, when Joseph Varan heard nothing more from the Secretary of State for two months, he filed a complaint for declaratory judgment seeking release of the records at no cost, plus court costs and a civil penalty.
Cook County Record

The judge in the prostitution case against Robert Kraft has ruled that the surveillance video showing him allegedly engaging in sex at a Jupiter massage parlor cannot be used as evidence at his trial. The ruling could gut the high-profile case against the owner of the New England Patriots, this year’s Super Bowl champions. And now that the surveillance video has been ruled inadmissible, Kraft’s attorneys are asking the court to keep the video sealed. “The public has no right to access suppressed evidence, particularly materials that have been suppressed because they were obtained in violation of [law],” attorneys wrote in the motion. The Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office said in early April that the video was a public record subject to release unless a court said otherwise.

quote_2.jpg“The public has no right to access suppressed evidence, particularly materials that have been suppressed."


editorials & columns

quote_3.jpg"The idea that FOIA is burdensome is a posture taken all too often by too many bodies that serve the public interest."

Local leaders within the Historic Triangle have spent at least two decades seeking better ways to capture the tourism dollars that are vital the localities’ well being. The Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance created last July to address those very issues is, however, walking a troubling path as some members seek free reign to conduct the group’s business in an atmosphere of relative secrecy.Expenditures and disbursements from the marketing fund to the tourism council pass through the offices of state treasurer and state comptroller as well as the Virginia Tourism Authority — all of which are public entities. And the Tourism Council must submit a report each year to the localities on its progress and the status of the tourism fund. Someone will be held accountable for the Tourism Council’s spending, regardless of whether this new regional body is deemed a public body. The idea that FOIA is burdensome is a posture taken all too often by too many bodies that serve the public interest. The law is in place to ensure the state government and its entities are proactive in seeking the public’s input, and rightfully so.
Daily Press

A proposal recently unveiled by the Council of the District of Columbia would burden people making requests under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act by setting restrictive requirements on requests and allowing disclosure only for information relating to “official business.” The proposal narrows the definition of a public record subject to disclosure, improperly burdens requesters by requiring them to “describe with particularity” what they are seeking, and seems to require the public to submit only requests that an agency could handle within FOIA’s time limits. In a letter sent today to the D.C. Council, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press expressed concern that any “changes to FOIA — a law of fundamental importance to citizens of the District — should not be made without the public being given a meaningful opportunity to be heard.” This is particularly true where, as here, the proposed changes will curtail public access to information that would shed light on the use of taxpayer resources by District officials and employees.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press