Newspapers win access to school files





Two separate court rulings in the Midwest upheld the public interest in access to information that was previously kept under lock and key by school and college administrators.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that an Illinois newspaper company and the public are entitled to view a settlement made in court between Lake Land College and Goble Jessup, former vice president of the community college.

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Mid-Illinois Newspapers, which operates the Mattoon Journal Gazette and the Charleston Journal Gazette, sought access from the federal court that approved the settlement in the case.

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Chief Judge Richard Posner noted in the court's opinion that there is a presumptive First Amendment right of access to court records. If the settlement had not been filed in court, the public would not have had access to a copy from the court.

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The Illinois legislature passed a bill in November 2001 that would have required public bodies to make cash settlements public, but the governor vetoed the bill and it looks to be dead, said Bill Lier, managing editor of the Mattoon Journal Gazette.

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Lake Land College officials said they would follow the ruling and did not plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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A Wisconsin appellate court acted to defend the public interest when it ruled in February that a school board must release its evaluation of a former superintendent.

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The Wisconsin Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a previous state circuit court decision holding that the public interest in an evaluation made of former Rhinelander Superintendent Robb W. Jensen outweighs any potential damage to his reputation.

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Concluding a case fought by a local newspaper at considerable cost, the ruling champions journalists' and the public's right to know.

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The northern Wisconsin Rhinelander school board hired Jensen in 1998 on a salary of $95,000 plus numerous benefits, including fully paid family health insurance and two years' paid administrative leave.

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Prior to its decision not to renew Jensen's contract, the board conducted an evaluation of him for the 1999-2000 school year.

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When The Rhinelander Daily News filed an open-records request for the document in spring 2000, the school board notified Jensen and he filed suit seeking to block release of the document.

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Wisconsin Circuit Judge Mark Mangerson ruled in May 2001 that the evaluation should be released, and the appellate court agreed.

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Justice J.P. Hoover wrote in the court's opinion that media reports of Jensen being placed on paid leave had already adversely affected his reputation, and that the public's right to know why the board acted to not renew his contract outweighed Jensen's interest in protecting his reputation.

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CASES:

Jessup v. Luther, 227 F.3d 993 (7th Cir. 2000); Jensen v. School Dist. of Rhinelander, 2002 WL 207506 (Wisc. App. Feb. 12, 2002)


reports, Spring 2002