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Wyoming sheriff forced to release suicide report

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 42.

From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 42.

The Wyoming Supreme Court ended a two-year battle in Laramie County over a suicide protocol report, ruling Feb. 8 that the county sheriff must hand the document over to a newspaper publishing company.

However, Sheriff Roger Allsop was permitted by the court to redact a small portion of the report on Laramie County Detention Center for security reasons.

Bill Thomas, a spokesman for the Laramie County Sheriff’s Office, said he agreed with the sheriff’s decision not to release the documents and that he was pleased with the court’s decision to allow some of the report to be redacted.

“We felt, according to the law, we could not release the report with information about security measures” in it, Thomas said.

Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc., owner of the Laramie Boomerang and the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, twice requested the report under the Wyoming Public Records Act in October 1999. Both times Allsop refused to release the report, claiming it would be contrary to the public interest because it would reveal security measures and procedures at the jail.

The newspaper company sued Allsop for the report in the Laramie County District Court in Cheyenne and won. Allsop appealed to the state’s high court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The high court found that Allsop did not produce enough evidence to support his claim that releasing the report would be contrary to the public’s interest, especially in light of the fact that the court allowed sensitive portions of the report to be redacted with no opposition from the publishing company.

“With redaction, disclosure of the report would not be contrary to the public interest,” the court wrote in its opinion, adding that redaction is “one of the remedies to vindicate the public’s interests in access to public records.”

In addition, the court held that “the freedom-of-the-press and due process provisions of the Federal and Wyoming constitutions guarantee a person’s right to access public records, and absent a compelling State interest, the State may not exclude an entire class of records from public inspection.”

A series of inmate suicides and suicide attempts prompted Allsop to commission a study of the jail’s suicide prevention system in 1999. Allsop received a copy of the “Cox Report” — named for its author, Judith F. Cox of the National Institute of Corrections — in the fall of that year.

D. Reed Eckhardt, managing editor of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, said he is proud of the results of the case because it helps establish a legal precedent on the release of public documents in Wyoming.

“Wyoming’s legal precedents on open records and open meetings are very thin,” Eckhardt said. “We pushed to the end to get the precedents in place.” (Allsop v. Cheyenne Newspapers) — KC