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Citizens for Fauquier County v. Town of Warrenton

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  1. Freedom of Information

Court: Virginia Court of Appeals

Date Filed: Sept. 7, 2023

Background: Citizens for Fauquier County, a nonprofit environmental group, filed a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request with the town of Warrenton seeking records related to a permit sought by Amazon to build a 220,000 square foot data center within the town. Town officials refused to turn over more than 3,000 responsive records, including officials’ communications with Amazon representatives, arguing that they could be withheld from disclosure under an exemption to the state’s public records law that shields “[w]orking papers and correspondence of” certain executives.

In December 2022, Citizens for Fauquier County sued the town of Warrenton to compel officials to produce the records. However, the circuit court ruled against the nonprofit group, holding that the records could be withheld under the so-called “working papers” exemption. Citizens for Fauquier County then appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals, arguing that the lower court improperly applied the exemption.

Our Position: The appeals court should reverse the lower court’s decision and rule in favor of disclosure.

  • Narrow construction of FOIA’s exemptions — including the working papers exemption — is a cornerstone of the Act.
  • News media rely on access to municipal government records in order to perform important journalism for the public’s benefit.

Quote: “The records sought by Appellants … will provide needed context surrounding the amendment of the Town of Warrenton’s zoning laws to permit the construction of data centers and the Warrenton Town Council’s decision to approve the installment of an Amazon data center — information to which the press and the public have both a right and a compelling interest.”

Related: On behalf of VPM News and reporter Ben Paviour, Reporters Committee attorneys previously filed two separate lawsuits against the Virginia Department of Education seeking access to records related to Critical Race Theory and policies concerning transgender students. Both lawsuits challenged the government’s reliance on the working papers exemption to withhold the records. In the Critical Race Theory case, the Virginia Department of Education disclosed the record at issue after the lawsuit was filed. In the case related to transgender policy records, however, the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond ruled in favor of the Virginia Department of Education, finding that the records at issue were properly withheld.

In another case involving the working papers exemption, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of American Oversight Executive Director Heather Sawyer’s efforts to obtain public records related to an email “tip line” Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration implemented as part of the governor’s efforts to end the use of what his office called “inherently divisive concepts” in state education.

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