The Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed and adopted the opinion of a lower court that school districts in the state must disclose the names and salaries of their employees under the state public records act in Laramie County School District No. One v. Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc.
In December 2009, Cheyenne Newspapers, which publishes the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, requested that the school district provide it with "all employment contracts or any other records depicting employee names in conjunction with their salaries or a listing of employee names with salaries." The request was made under the state's public records act, which mandates that all public records "shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times" except when disclosure "would be contrary to any state statute."
Tribune-Eagle Executive Editor D. Reed Eckhardt said that, because education is a topic of public concern, "the goal here was to provide information to the public so they could decide for themselves whether they thought teachers were being paid enough, whether they were being paid appropriately, whether they were being paid according to merit or simply longevity."
The district claimed such disclosure would be contrary to a provision in the Wyoming Education Code that requires the district to publish the salaries of its employees without reference to individual employee names. Editors of the Tribune-Eagle disagreed, claiming the education code provision and public records act do not conflict because the code provision only controls the manner in which certain information must be published on an annual basis by the school district's board of trustees and does not foreclose the availability of similar records under the public records act.
The District Court of Laramie County held in August that exceptions to the public's right to know how a government entity expends public funds have to be narrowly construed and that the code provision did not contain any "expressly textual" language stating information concerning the identity of a school district's employee is confidential in conjunction with salary information. The court said: "[C]onstruction of the statue as the [Laramie County School District No. One] suggests would leave the Court with no rational explanation as to why the legislature would want to treat school district employees differently than employees of other public entities."
Responding to the school district's additional argument that the public records law permits the state to withhold documents if it is not in the public's interest to release them, the court recognized that disclosure of some school district employee names could, in some circumstances, be contrary to the public interest, in cases for example when "those employees might be located by a stalker."
However, the school district conceded that only a small number of its employees would fall into this category. The court therefore said that, absent a finding of such instances that would require the court to conduct a case-by-case analysis to assess potential harm, it was proper in this case to grant the newspaper's request without resolving the public interest exception. If a particular employee could demonstrate a recognizable harm through disclosure, the merits of that claim could be addressed through later proceedings or negotiations.
"There probably will become some discussion at some point about how many of these names should be redacted, and our goal is not to endanger the lives or the health of people or their welfare, so if the school just wants to have a conversation with us about these — I think they were saying yesterday about a dozen people they are concerned about — if they convince us that these need to be withheld, we aren't going to publish them, that's not our desire here," said Eckhardt.
Citing privacy concerns, the court further noted that its ruling did not entitle the the newspaper to employees' personal addresses, telephone numbers and birth dates, which may also be contained in salary data records.
However, the newspaper was satisfied with the ruling. "We definitely expected this outcome," said Eckhardt, noting that the court's adoption of the lower court's ruling suggested "how solid the case was."