District's refusal to mail documents costs $58,575

Judge fines school system $10 for each day it failed to send records to ACLU

WASHINGTON -- Following a four-year court battle, a state judge ordered a school district to pay more than $58,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union in March for refusing to mail the organization 13 pages of public documents.

The ACLU of Washington requested documents describing school district policies and copies of disciplinary records in December 1995 from Blaine School District in northwest Washington. The district agreed to let the ACLU view the documents in Blaine but refused to put them in the mail despite the ACLU's offer to pay for copying fees and postage.

"Our concern was and still is what do you do the next time someone comes along and their request is for 20 pages or 50 pages or 500 pages of documents?" said district lawyer Tim Slater. "We felt that making the records available for inspection and copy strikes a balance between the burden on the agency and places some responsibility on the requesting party to show up, review it for themselves and decide if they really want all that paper."

The ACLU requested the records after parents of a Blaine student contacted the organization with concerns over disciplinary actions the district had taken against their son, said Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington. The ACLU sued in Whatcom County Superior Court after the district refused to mail the records, but the judge ruled in favor of the district.

The county court's decision was overturned by a Seattle appellate court, which said the district was "effectively denying access to the records" by refusing to mail them.

"The court saw that we're in the post-pony express era and that it's pretty reasonable to mail things, especially if it will facilitate citizens' ability to get documents and learn what the government's doing," Honig said.

"The appeals court said that under the particular facts of this case the district was required to mail the records," Slater said. "But by leaning on the facts of this case alone it doesn't provide any guidance to agencies in the future that are faced with onerous public disclosure requests for maybe hundreds of documents and are asked to mail them."

Honig said the school's position becomes an obstacle for citizens who might not have access to transportation, such as the elderly or disabled.

"There are all kinds of reasons why it may be hard for someone to show up and physically get the documents," Honig said. "It's perfectly sensible. Since you have a good postal system, you might as well take advantage of it."

The Seattle appeals court fined the district $10 a day and asked the appeals court commissioner to decide what the district should pay in attorney's fees and costs to the ACLU. The commissioner ordered the district to pay the ACLU $58,575.

"It's important for any citizen to have reasonable and ready access to government documents, and this court decision reinforces the fact that it's the responsibility of school districts to provide that cooperation," Honig said.    

reports, Spring 2000