NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON · Freedom of Information · Nov. 3, 2005
Teachers accused of sexual misconduct must be named
Nov. 3, 2005 · The names of teachers accused of sexual misconduct are not exempt from Washington’s open records law and must be released because they relate to a matter of public concern, a state intermediate appellate court ruled last month.
“School districts must disclose the names of teachers who have been accused of misconduct of a sexual nature, even when the districts have concluded after investigation that the allegations are unsubstantiated or too minor to justify discipline,” Judge Mary Kay Becker wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel of the Washington Court of Appeals.
In ruling to release 15 of 18 names sought by The Seattle Times, the panel rejected arguments by school districts in Bellevue, Federal Way and Seattle, Wash., that the release of records identifying teachers with accusations of sexual misconduct would invade their privacy. Mere embarrassment is not enough to warrant shrouding the documents, the court ruled. The Superior Court of King County had previously ordered release of some but not all of the teachers’ names.
“The Public Records Act states as policy that ‘free and open examination’ of public records is in the public interest, even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to others,” Becker wrote for the appellate court.
Among the tests the court used in weighing the teachers’ privacy interests was whether the accusations of misconduct are of legitimate concern to the public.
“Sexual abuse of students is a proper matter of public concern because the public must decide what can be done about it,” Becker wrote. “The public requires information about the extent of known sexual misconduct in the schools, its nature, and the way the school system responds in order to address the problem.”
The lawsuit was filed against the school districts in 2003 by teachers who were notified by school officials under the open records law that The Seattle Times sought records identifying teachers accused of, investigated or disciplined for sexual misconduct within the last 10 years. The Times was granted the right to intervene in the case.
Three of the 18 teacher names in dispute will remain secret because the accusations of misconduct against them are “patently false” and therefore fall under the privacy exemption to the state’s open records law, the appeals court ruled.
“In the case of Seattle John Doe I, for example, the accusation that the teacher was guilty of violent rape, kidnapping and satanic torture was completely implausible,” she wrote.
The Times had argued that even Seattle John Doe I’s name should be released because the interests of the teacher and the public are best served by “clearing the air,” Becker wrote.
“But when information about an individual is protected by the right to privacy, the individual not anyone else gets to decide whether clearing the air is a good idea,” Becker wrote. “Neither the existence of a school district file documenting the investigation, nor circulation of rumors about who was involved, justifies forcing Seattle John Doe I to be publicly linked, without his consent, with these high offensive allegations that are patently false.”
The Times sought the records for a 2003 series “Coaches Who Prey,” which found nearly 100 Washington coaches who continued to coach or teach after being fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct.
(Bellevue John Does vs. Bellevue School District; Media Counsel: Michele Lynn Earl-Hubbard, Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle, Wash.) — KM