A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


By Quill

Court rules settlements are open

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled in early October that a court settlement against a public entity is a public record under the state’s Right-to-Know Act, even when a body such as an insurance company is the sole party to the lawsuit.

A Westmoreland County Housing Authority employee sued the city of Greensburg, claiming gender discrimination and a hostile work environment. The Housing and Redevelopment Insurance Exchange defended the suit and settled with the employee under a confidentiality agreement, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported.

The Tribune-Review requested a copy of the settlement from the agency under the Right-to-Know Act. When the housing authority refused disclosure, the newspaper sued for production of the document.

The authority claimed that the confidentiality agreement in the contract and its own encouragement of settlements in such legal cases outweighed public interest in freedom of information laws.

Earnhardt photo appeal reaches Supreme Court

The University of Florida’s student newspaper has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to gain access to autopsy photos of racecar driver Dale Earnhardt.

Lawyers for the newspaper argue that a law signed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, at the request of Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, violates the First Amendment. The Independent Florida Alligator was earlier denied access to the photos by a Florida state court.

The law, signed one month after Earnhardt’s February 2001 crash in the Daytona 500, restricts access to videos, photos and recordings of an autopsy unless a court rules the requester’s motive is superior to the family’s right to privacy.

Before the bill passed, autopsy requests were accessible under Florida’s Public Records Act.

Newspaper lawyer Tom Julin told the Student Press Law Center the law is too broad and believes the appeal could win at the Supreme Court.

“The law could be more narrow and still protect the Earnhardt family’s right to privacy,” Julin said. “It could simply prohibit the copying of autopsy photos (while still allowing the public to see them) without sacrificing important journalistic and legal investigations.”

The Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the case in July.

Columbine depositions ordered destroyed

The depositions in a settled lawsuit dealing with the 1999 Columbine High School massacre were ordered destroyed by a Colorado magistrate judge in September.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Coan ruled Sept. 23 “there would be no further purpose, need or use” for the documents, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported.

The attorney for the five families who sued the parents of teenage killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold said the “ruling was made without any due process of law.” Attorney Barry Arrington would appeal Coan’s order, he said.

Parents told the Denver Post if the depositions are destroyed, they believe the public will never be able to learn from their experiences.

About 30 families of slain or injured victims settled with the Klebold and Harris families in 2001. They will split about $2.8 million.

Town Council opens credit card records

The Leesburg, Va., Town Council voted unanimously Oct. 1 to grant public access to copies of town-issued credit card bills after a high-profile city employee was accused of using taxpayer-funded credit cards for escort services.

The council ignored the request of Virginia Commonwealth attorney Robert Anderson, who had told council members not to release any information relating to the alleged embezzlement of money by Michael Aguija, former information technology director for Leesburg. Anderson said releasing the copies could compromise a criminal investigation of Aguija.

Aguija was arrested in late September for charging as much as $25,000 on a town-issued credit card for escort services.

The Town Council allowed Anderson time to file an emergency injunction against the order, according to Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Aguija was making $92,000 a year before he resigned Sept. 15 upon discovering that a Freedom of Information Act request of his credit card records was being pursued. The Town Council initially approved Leesburg Today reporter Dan Telvock’s request, but rescinded it before Telvock saw the documents.

Punishment for FOI violations kept secret

Two Texas officials refused to disclose the details of a settlement agreement where charges of violating the state’s Open Meetings Act were filed against a county hospital board member.

The member, Montgomery County Hospital District board secretary Nicol Huff, and District Attorney Mike McDougal refuse to share the terms of a probationary period Huff will serve in the exchange for the dismissal of two counts of conspiracy to circumvent the Open Meetings Act, The Associated Press reported.

Both the terms and length of the probation period are closed to the public.

“That is between Ms. Huff, me and the probation officer,” McDougal told the AP.

Each violation could have resulted in $500 in fines and up to six months in prison. The charges relate to a 2002 secret board vote to dismiss Don Disbennett, the hospital’s then-CEO.

Board member Bill Leigh claimed four of the board’s members, including Huff, met in secret, in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act, to discuss Disbennett’s replacement and termination.