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Oklahoma Watch sues state’s largest school system over access to email records

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  1. Freedom of Information
This is the first lawsuit filed by RCFP attorneys as part of the Local Legal Initiative in Oklahoma.
Photo of Epic Charter Schools building

Update: On June 10, 2022, the parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit after Epic Charter Schools produced more than 14,000 documents to Oklahoma Watch and Palmer. 

On behalf of Oklahoma Watch and one of its reporters, attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are suing the state’s largest school system and its superintendent over their refusal to provide access to email records requested by the nonprofit news organization.

The May 11 lawsuit — the first filed as part of the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative in Oklahoma, which launched last November — centers on a state Open Records Act request Oklahoma Watch reporter Jennifer Palmer submitted to Epic Charter Schools last July seeking emails sent to and from the school system’s co-founder, Ben Harris.

Epic Charter Schools, which enrolls nearly 60,000 students, has recently been the subject of a series of federal and state investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, including an allegation that school officials received state funding for “ghost students” that received no actual instruction at the school. On May 7, Oklahoma’s Multicounty Grand Jury released a report that raised concerns over what it calls a lack of transparency in the school system’s operations, and said it was “ripe for fraud.”

In response to Palmer’s public records request, Epic Charter Schools proposed charging more than $40,000 in fees to copy the documents. Palmer then narrowed the date range of her request the next month, but school officials still insisted on charging almost $5,000 to fulfill the request — including more than $3,000 in “legal review” costs that have no basis in law and amount to a violation of the Open Records Act.

In their lawsuit, Palmer and Oklahoma Watch ask the Oklahoma County District Court to order, among other things, that Epic Charter Schools’ withholding of the requested records is unlawful; that the news outlet is entitled to the prompt disclosure or inspection of the requested records at little or no cost; and that the school system is breaking the law by demanding legal review payments in response to Open Records Act requests.

“These records are owned by the public,” said Ted Streuli, executive director of Oklahoma Watch. “The law is clear that the public is entitled to see their own documents. Inventing and inflating fees is merely a tactic to subvert the law and keep the public away from what’s rightfully theirs, from work they’ve already paid for with their taxes.”

“Epic Charter Schools has provided no legitimate basis to withhold the requested records, and their insistence on demanding fees they are not entitled to under the Open Records Act is particularly concerning,” said Kathryn E. Gardner, the Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative staff attorney in Oklahoma who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the news outlet and the reporter. “A ruling in favor of Oklahoma Watch and Jennifer Palmer would send a clear message that public bodies, including school systems, in Oklahoma cannot shield records from the public by charging exorbitant fees to the journalists and news organizations who request them.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

Photo by Raymond D. Woods, Jr.