NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · SOUTH CAROLINA · Freedom of Information · July 17, 2007
School board violated public access law
July 17, 2007 · A school district’s refusal to release information on the finalists for its superintendent’s job was a violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court affirmed a previous lower court decision upholding public access after considering the legislative intent of a portion of the state’s right-to-know law governing the release of information on how public bodies search for job candidates.
“FOIA is remedial in nature and should be liberally construed to carry out the purpose mandated by the legislature,” Justice Costa Pleicones wrote for the unanimous court. “FOIA must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens to learn and report fully the activities of public officials.”
The case arose in 2003, when the Spartansburg, S.C., Herald-Journal sued the Spartansburg County School District No. 7 because the district withheld information related to its search for a new superintendent.
Two finalists were chosen from a group of five semifinalists who had originally been part of a pool of about 30 applicants. The state FOIA mandates public agencies release the names of at least the final three applicants in a hiring process.
The school board guaranteed the five semifinalists that only the two finalists’ identities would be released, so the district only made information available on those two people.
The paper had requested the identities of at least three semifinalists as prescribed by the law, but the district denied the request because of its promise to the five semifinalists.
The paper then filed suit in the lower court, which found the district violated the state open records law. The court also ordered the school district to disclose the additional information as well as pay the newspaper’s attorney fees and its costs.
According to the ruling, school district attorneys interpreted the law to mean that if there are less than three people considered qualified for a public position, the public body only had to release information on those people.
But the high court ruled otherwise: “We will reject a statutory interpretation that leads to a result so plainly absurd that it could not have been intended by the legislature or would defeat the plain legislative intention.”
The ruling sends a message to public bodies that it is the public’s right to know who the candidates are for public jobs, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.
“The law is designed to allow the public an opportunity to give feedback when it comes to hiring public figures,” Rogers said. “If this [ruling] had gone the other way, you would have seen an increase in secrecy and public bodies with only one finalist for a job.”
(The New York Times Co. v. Spartansburg County School District No. 7, Media Counsel: Jay Bender, Baker, Ravenel & Bender, Columbia, S.C.) — NC