Student access to election totals denied
Virginia Supreme Court rejects plea to release high school vote returns
VIRGINIA — The state supreme court ruled in September against a former high school student journalist’s request for student election vote totals under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
Lucas Wall, the former editor of the Centreville Sentinel, sued Centreville High School’s student government adviser Mimi Totten and the school board in 1995 after they refused to release all of the election results. Only the winner’s names were disclosed.
In the school-wide elections, students voted for class officers and members of the Student Advisory Committee. The latter group, made up of elected students from around the district, selects a delegate who serves as a student representative to the Fairfax County School Board.
In Wall v. Fairfax County School Board, 475 S.E. 2d 803 (Va. 1996), the high court unanimously rejected Wall’s appeal. They affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the vote totals constituted a student’s “scholastic records” that are exempted from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Under the court’s ruling, public colleges and universities in the state could refuse to release student election vote totals as well.
William F. Wall, Lucas’ father and his attorney, argued at the trial that the school was being hypocritical for teaching democratic ideals but showing by their behavior that they really do not believe in them.
The case against the board was also supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. State ACLU Director Kent Willis commented that “How many votes a student got is no different from how many points a student scored in a basketball game. Both are actions students voluntarily do. They are public activities….”
Totten first refused to release the vote totals for the elections because she claimed they might embarrass the losers and discourage future potential candidates. The principal, buoyed by the county’s other 20 high schools which also do not disclose vote totals, went along with Totten’s argument and prevented the release of the information.
William Wall’s reaction to the loss was more fatherly than scholarly. “I’m very proud of my son. I’ve tried to instill in him the belief that certain principles are worth fighting for…and in this case he has handled himself better than most of the adults involved,” he said.
Lucas Wall, currently a journalism and politics sophomore at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said he will continue his fight in the next session of the state’s legislature. He is currently lobbying representatives to support an amendment to Virginia’s freedom of information law that would open student election vote totals.
reports, Winter 1996-97