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Reporters Committee asks court to protect right to see government employees' records

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In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Thursday with the Louisiana Supreme Court, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked…

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Thursday with the Louisiana Supreme Court, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked the court to accept an appeal of the government’s refusal to release an assistant fire chief’s disciplinary records. The Reporters Committee argued that the public has a compelling interest in seeing public employees’ disciplinary records, especially when they are entrusted with duties that are critical to a community’s well-being, such as teaching, law enforcement and emergency response.

The government’s withholding of disciplinary records, the Reporters Committee wrote, disregards the transparency that Louisianans have clearly demanded not only through the passage of the Louisiana Public Records Law, but also by the ratification of a right-to-know provision in the Louisiana Constitution. Louisiana is one of only six states to constitutionalize a general public right to inspect government records.

In 2003, firefighter Mikel Crossen requested documents that included Assistant Fire Chief Ed Goldman Jr.’s disciplinary records. The fire department refused to release the information, alleging that Goldman’s constitutional right to privacy outweighed Crossen’s constitutionally guaranteed right to inspect government records.

A state trial judge ruled in Goldman’s favor in 2003. Judge Clarence McManus, writing for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, affirmed the ruling in December, citing a case that protects personal evaluation reports from disclosure because they might cause “humiliation or embarrassment.” Crossen asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to consider an appeal.

The Reporters Committee’s brief argues that access to disciplinary records directly correlates to “the news media’s ability to report on government affairs performed in the public’s name, and at taxpayer’s expense. . . . One who voluntarily accepts a public paycheck cannot unreasonably claim ‘privacy’ in government records pertaining to their continuing qualifications and performance, especially upon a finding of misconduct,” the brief says.

In 1997, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that an applicant for a government job had no constitutional right of privacy in his resume or application. “If the public’s interest in a hypothetical government employee’s qualifications makes the applicant’s subjective privacy expectation untenable,” the brief reasoned, “then the same must certainly be true for disciplinary records to the extent that they shed light on an actual government employee’s qualifications and performance.”

The Reporters Committee was joined on the brief by The (Baton Rouge) Advocate, the only daily newspaper published in the state capital.

The brief can be viewed online at: https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20050303-amicusbrie.html