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Court blocks teacher's attempt to keep employment record secret

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    News Media Update         WISCONSIN         Freedom of Information    

Court blocks teacher’s attempt to keep employment record secret

  • Employment records of a teacher facing sexual abuse charges were released last week after a Wisconsin court rejected the teacher’s claim that they are exempt from state open records law.

Nov. 24, 2004 — A public school teacher’s employment records were released last week, ending a Wisconsin newspaper’s six-month legal battle for access. The state’s Court of Appeals ruled in The (Racine) Journal Times favor last week, holding that state open records law mandated the documents’ release and rejecting the teacher’s request for an injunction prohibiting disclosure.

The Journal Times requested special education teacher Larry Robinson’s personnel records in June 2004, after learning that he had been suspended until the resolution of his criminal trial for sexually assaulting three 11- and 12- year old girls. In accordance with Wisconsin law, the school district notified Robinson of the records request so that he could challenge the documents’ release if he chose.

Robinson did challenge the employment records’ release, claiming that one of the documents — his suspension notice — was statutorily exempted from state open records law as part of a criminal investigation. And the rest of the records, according to Robinson, were protected by a common law public policy exemption. The trial court denied his request for an injunction and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In its opinion, the court held that the statutory criminal investigation exemption did not apply to Robinson’s suspension notice because that document is non-investigatory. The court also noted that the suspension notice’s contents were already common knowledge.

The court similarly dismissed Robinson’s claim that the rest of the employment file should be withheld in the interest of public policy. In granting such exemptions to state open records law, Wisconsin courts must balance the public’s interest in a record’s disclosure with the public’s interest in a record’s suppression. Robinson claimed that the record’s release would compromise his ability to get a fair trial. The court was not convinced that his right to a fair trial would be jeopardized, finding instead a clear public interest in teacher misconduct.

When misconduct occurs in the school and classroom settings, “the public should expect some increased accountability,” the court concluded.

After receiving Robinson’s employment records, The Journal Times learned that Robinson had been accused of grabbing students in his previous teaching job with the Milwaukee Public Schools. Even more recently, Robinson had been accused of sexual harassment by one of his fellow teachers in the Racine Unified School District, the records showed.

(Robinson v. Racine Unified School Dist., Media Counsel: Tom Krohn, Dye, Foley, Krohn & Shannon S.C., Racine, Wisc.) RL

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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