Court vacates previous ruling about public disclosure

Freedom of Information | Feature | March 7, 2007

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MAINE   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   March 7, 2007


Court vacates previous ruling about public disclosure

  • The state high court overturned a lower court's ruling that an investigative report should be available to the public without redaction.

March 7, 2007  ·   Maine's high court has ruled that an investigative report containing information about two staff members from a Madawaska school is considered an employee record and is therefore protected from unedited public disclosure.

The 4-3 ruling overrode Superior Court Justice Allen Hunter's previous decision that the 2005 report compiled by attorney Ervin Snyder and funded with taxpayer money should be released to the public without redactions.

Snyder's report revealed the findings of his investigation surrounding a controversy at Madawaska Middle/High School after the superintendent did not recommend a probationary teacher for re-employment for the 2005-06 school year.

The superintendent's decision generated significant controversy and resulted in the resignation of a principal, a student walkout, and further protests that required police intervention.

After a redacted copy of the report was released to the public, Madawaska resident Paul A. Cyr filed a written request under Maine's Freedom of Access Act to obtain the full version. The chairman of the Madawaska School Department denied his request, citing the portion of the act that prohibits disclosure of information contained in employee records.

Cyr appealed the school department's decision, and Hunter ruled in Cyr's favor, ordering that the full version of the report be made available to the public.

The school department then appealed to Maine's Supreme Judicial Court, which narrowly ruled in favor of the Madawaska School Department by citing the public records act's exemption of information that contains an employee's "personal history, general character or conduct."

The high court agreed, however, that the section of the so-called Snyder report titled "Recommendations to the Madawaska School Board" should have been released to the public.

Justice Susan Calkins wrote the dissenting opinion in the Supreme Judicial Court's Feb. 8 ruling, with the support of Justices Howard H. Dana Jr. and Donald G. Alexander.

Calkins said that "the Madawaska School Department failed to prove that the Snyder Report comes within a statutory exception from disclosure" because it did not demonstrate that the report is an employee record.

Calkins also pointed out that Maine's public records act says the school department is responsible for providing evidence that the Snyder report falls under an exception and failed to do so.

"A court cannot guess that, just because an investigative report describes actions of school employees and officials, it is an employee record or intended to be kept as an employee record," Calkins said in her dissent.

The ruling came in spite of the Bangor Daily News' friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of public disclosure.

The court's ruling returns the case to the lower court for further proceedings.

(Cyr v. Madawaska School Department, Amicus Counsel: Bernard J. Kubetz, Eaton Peabody, Bangor, Maine) -- MA

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