• Dennis McCaslin

Judge rules against Huntsville School District over Freedom of Information issues

Circuit Court Judge Doug Martin issued an opinion letter yesterday that the Huntsville School District violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by failing to produce text messages pursuant to a FOIA Request submitted by Benjamin Rightsell.

Rightsell requested all documentation from the District—including text messages—related to allegations of sexual assaults and the practice known as ‘baptism’ and ‘bean dipping.’ The District did not produce any documents in response to Rightsell’s request and argued that all of the requested documents were protected from production. Rightsell only became aware of the text messages after learning that the District had previously provided them to the Madison County Record.

McCutchen argued in a post-trial brief that the District violated FOIA if it failed to produce even a single responsive document that is not subject to non-disclosure under privacy laws. The Court agreed and ruled that at least one of the text messages was not protected from production.

The Court ordered the District to produce all remaining responsive documents to be reviewed in private by the Court to determine whether the District failed to provide any other responsive records in violation of FOIA.

Judge Martin also ruled that the Huntsville School Board did not violate FOIA when it removed a reporter from a disciplinary hearing prior to the Board announcing in public that a parent wanted the hearing to be held in private.

McCutchen said, “The law regarding disciplinary hearings is ambiguous and should be clarified by the Arkansas legislature."

The District has already admitted to ten additional FOIA violations associated with Rightsell’s lawsuit—that the District failed on multiple occasions to notify the media of meetings and failed to properly record or maintain recordings of meetings pursuant to FOIA.

McCutchen said, “This is a win for sunshine. While privacy is vitally important, it should not be used as an excuse to justify a blanket refusal to produce public documents.” He added, “We look forward to the Court’s ruling regarding whether the District wrongly withheld other documents in violation of FOIA.”

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