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State Supreme Court reverses public disclosure decision

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Dec. 6, 2007  ·   A surveillance videotape taken onboard a school bus is not exempt from the state's Public…

Dec. 6, 2007  ·   A surveillance videotape taken onboard a school bus is not exempt from the state’s Public Disclosure Act, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Nov. 15.

In 2003, an altercation between two elementary school students was captured on a school bus surveillance video. On the day of the fight, the Kelso School District allowed Richard and Ginger Lindeman, parents of one of the students involved, to view the tape. But school officials later refused their request for a copy of the tape, saying it is a record of students’ personal information and exempt from disclosure under the state’s open record laws.

In response, the family filed suit in Cowlitz County Superior Court, alleging violation of the state’s Public Disclosure Act. Judge Stephen Warning found the video contained “personal information” about the students involved and therefore was exempt under the act.

But last month, the state Supreme Court reversed course and ordered the district to turn over the videotape as well as pay for the Lindeman’s court fees.

“This tape is not a file maintained for students,” Justice Susan Owens wrote for the 7-2 majority. “It’s not a student record. It’s a surveillance tape . . . . So it never should have been exempt in the first place.”

Owens was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justices Charles Johnson, Jim Johnson and Bobbe Bridge. Justices Richard Sanders concurred, stating that “merely placing the videotape in a location designated as a student’s file does not transform the videotape into a record maintained for students.”

Open records advocates cheered the decision.

“It’s just another assertion of the public’s right to know about the activity of the agencies that serve them,” said Rowland Thompson, the executive director of the Olympia-based Allied Daily Newspapers, a lobbying organization. “It would have been terrible to lose it, though.”

(Lindeman v. Kelso School District)Adam Vingan

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