School Board Demands Journalists Be Punished For Reporting On The School Board's Redaction Failure

from the not-the-way-that-works-(also-not-the-way-redaction-works) dept

A redaction failure by a public entity has led to a request for contempt charges to be brought against a Florida newspaper and two of its reporters. The Sun Sentinel obtained a copy of the Broward County School Board's report on the Parkland shooter after a successful public records request lawsuit. The report was heavily redacted… or at least, it was supposed to be. But the school board screwed this task up.

After a judge's order, the school district publicly released the report Friday with nearly two-thirds of its content blacked out to protect 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz's privacy rights. But the district used a method that failed: Anyone could copy and paste the blacked-out report into a Word document to make all the text visible.

Sun Sentinel reporters Brittany Wallman and Paula McMahon, acting on a Facebook tip from a reader at 7:30 p.m., discovered on deadline the concealed text could be viewed. The reporters quickly rewrote the story reflecting the entire report, providing the first detailed account about the school shooter's years in the school system, what the district knew about him and what mistakes were made.

The report [PDF] has been uploaded by the Sun Sentinel with the redaction performed correctly. But the faulty version was used to craft a long article about the shooter using details the court had determined could be withheld.

A petition [PDF] has been filed by the school board in an effort to shove this genie back into the bottle. The motion alleges the Sun Sentinel agreed to the redactions, which were put in place to conform with federal and state privacy laws covering education and medical records. Some of what was redacted detailed errors made by the school system when handling the shooter's discipline and educational options.

What the school board is seeking is both impossible and preposterous. The report has already been read in full and an article produced showing what was redacted. Copies of the report containing the faulty redaction are likely still in circulation. The contempt order might cause the Sun Sentinel some pain, but the damage has already been done.

That's the impossible side. The preposterous side is this: the Sun Sentinel published information it obtained lawfully. The report was delivered by the school board in accordance with the court's order. If the school board screwed up the redaction (and it did!), it has no right to complain people accessed the content it meant to keep hidden. Even if the Sun Sentinel agreed to the redactions, that doesn't mean it's supposed to just sit there and pretend it can't see the text the school board failed to fully redact.

Whatever damage has been done was inflicted by the school board for failing to properly redact the report it was ordered to hand over to the Sun Sentinel as the result of public records request lawsuit. The recipient has no obligation to only report on unredacted portions of the report if it has access to the entirety of the document due to human error. The judge may not be happy the Sun Sentinel did this, but I can't see how the court's going to find this is the reporters' fault, rather than the school board's.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: broward county, free speech, journalism, redactions, school board
Companies: sun sentinel


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Thread


  1. icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 9 Aug 2018 @ 3:37am

    First God made idiots. That was for practice.

    It is hard to see how the school board gets very far in this one. I think the U.S. Supremes decided Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, back in 1989.

    Same fact pattern, newspaper obtained and published information that the govt entity thought they should not have. Exception taken. In Florida Star, the trial court found newspaper liable, as did the DCA, but the Supremes reversed.

    Since the newspaper obtained the information lawfully, if through unsurprising govt screw-up, they get to publish it. Even if it had not been obtained lawfully, it is not clear that punishment would be permitted. See NY Times v. U.S., 403 U.S. 713, commonly known as the ``Pentagon Papers'' case.


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
.

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.