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Penncrest School District v. Cagle

Post categories

  1. Freedom of Information

Court: Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Date Filed: Feb. 15, 2024

Background: In May 2021, a high school library in the Penncrest School District displayed books on LGBTQ+ issues in anticipation of Pride Month. Two members of the Penncrest School Board later shared a photo of the display on their private Facebook accounts, with one of the board members commenting that it was “totally evil” and that kids “aren’t at school to be brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is okay.”

In June 2021, local community member Thomas Cagle submitted a request to the school district under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law seeking access to the two board members’ written correspondence related to homosexuality and the Penncrest School District, as well as all Facebook posts and comments made by the two board members concerning the same issue.

The school district provided some responsive records from district-owned email accounts. However, the district denied the rest of Cagle’s request, stating that the two board members did not provide any responsive records from their respective email accounts and that the Facebook posts and comments were not records of the school district.

Cagle appealed to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, which sided with Cagle and ordered the school district to disclose all responsive records.

The district appealed to the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas. In denying the district’s petition, the county court used a two-part framework established under the state’s public records law to determine that the board members’ social media posts at issue are indeed subject to disclosure. “It does not matter if a Facebook post was made on the school’s Facebook page or on the personal computer of the board member’s private Facebook page,” Senior Judge William Cunningham concluded. “These posts can become a ‘record’ if they are created by person(s) acting as a school board member and contain information related to a school transaction, business or activity.”

The district appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded for further fact finding. The Commonwealth Court instructed the lower court to conduct a three-part test for determining whether a social media post is subject to access under the Right-to-Know Law.

Cagle sought permission to appeal the Commonwealth Court’s decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which the court granted.

Our Position: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court should reverse the decision of the Commonwealth Court and require it to promptly issue its decision without an unnecessary remand to the lower court for more fact finding.

  • The Commonwealth Court’s order remanding the case for further review by the County Court is antithetical to the Right-to-Know Law’s plain text and remedial purpose.
  • Press and public access to social media activity of government officials is necessary for government accountability.

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in filing this friend-of-the-court brief.

Quote: The Commonwealth Court’s holding “impermissibly writes a social media-specific process into the RTKL, encouraging agencies to invoke that argument to delay access, and to move communications to social media to evade access altogether. If affirmed, the decision below would significantly curtail the ability of the press to access records in a timely fashion, leading to unjustifiable delays in obtaining and timely reporting on information of public concern.”

Related: In June 2022, the Reporters Committee and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in support of the American Civil Liberties Union’s effort to obtain the Pennsylvania State Police’s policy on investigating social media posts. In August 2023, the state’s highest court ruled in favor of the ACLU and remanded the case to the Commonwealth Court so that it could order the Pennsylvania State Police to turn over an unredacted copy of the requested social media policy.

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