Broward County School Board Gets Hit With Anti-SLAPP Suit After Trying To Punish Paper For Exposing Its Redaction Failure

from the could-be-a-costly-unforced-error dept

Last week, the Broward County School Board went after a Florida newspaper, claiming it should be held in contempt of court for publishing information the school district didn't properly redact. The Sun Sentinel obtained a copy of the Parkland school shooter's educational records as the result of a public records suit. Certain information was redacted -- or at least was supposed to be -- to comply with state and federal privacy laws.

What was delivered to the Sun Sentinel by the district had black redaction bars covering two-thirds of the document. Unfortunately, the redactions were merely cosmetic. Anyone with a copy of the PDF could select the "redacted" text in the PDF and paste it into a text editor to see what was supposed to have been withheld. The school board screwed up, making it possibly liable for privacy law violations, but it went to court claiming it was all the Sun Sentinel's fault anyone's privacy got violated.

The Sun Sentinel has now responded -- both with an editorial middle finger and a filing in court. (h/t Brittany Wallman) If everything goes the Sun Sentinel's way, not only will it not face contempt charges (there's been no ruling on the motion, so it appears the judge doesn't believe closing barn doors post-livestock exodus qualifies as an emergency), but might collect some cash from the school district for trying to silence the paper.

From the motion [PDF]:

In a rush to deflect from its own negligence in publicly disclosing the CEN (Collaborative Educational Network) report at issue in a wholly unsecured format, the School Board now seeks to have this Court find the Sun Sentinel in contempt for exercising their First Amendment rights to truthfully report on a matter of the highest public concern: the exact nature of the special educational services the School District provided (or notably failed to provide) to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (“MSD”) shooter Nikolas Cruz—who now stands charged with multiple counts of capital murder. On their face, neither the civil court’s operative July 26, 2018 order (the “Civil Order”)—requiring the School District to disclose a redacted version of the CEN report—nor the criminal court’s August 3, 2018 order (the “Criminal Order”) in any way limited the Sun Sentinel’s ability to publish the report’s contents. Indeed, to have done so would have constituted an unconstitutional prior restraint.

By posting an improperly redacted version of the CEN report to its website for public download, the School District itself may have failed to comply with the court’s orders. In any event, there is no dispute that the Sun Sentinel lawfully obtained the report from the School District’s website and the information sought to be shielded by the redactions. Under such circumstances the law is clear: a First Amendment right to publish firmly attaches and no contempt proceeding may lie.

The motion points out the court never restricted what the paper could publish. Any court-ordered redactions were the responsibility of the school district, which was being sued for refusing to release the report at all. The in camera review conducted determined what could and couldn't be redacted by the school board. It had nothing to do with the Sun Sentinel, which was only the recipient of a document ordered to be produced. The paper acquired the document lawfully -- as did anyone else who downloaded the version with the faulty redaction. It was under no legal obligation to withhold information the school board meant to withhold, but didn't.

Even though the school district claims it handled everything correctly in regards to the Parkland school shooter, the Sun Sentinel points out in its editorial there are a handful of details that show school administrators mishandled situations involving a volatile student.

School officials didn’t properly advise Cruz of his legal options when he was faced with removal from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School his junior year, leading him to give up special education services.

When Cruz failed to file the required written rejection of special education services, school officials nudged him, writing it up for him to sign.

The district “did not follow through” on Cruz’s subsequent request to return to the therapeutic environment of Cross Creek School for special education students.

The contempt motion looks like nothing more than a punitive move by the school board to punish a news outlet for exposing its mistakes to the world. If this anti-SLAPP motion secures a ruling in favor of the paper, the board's attempt to punish the news outlet for publishing lawfully-obtained documents will put taxpayers on the hook for the paper's legal fees.

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Filed Under: anti-slapp, broward county, broward county school board, florida, free speech, public records, redactions, transparency
Companies: broward county school, sun sentinel

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  1. icon
    Thad (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 8:20am

    Re: Re: There is a lesson to be learned here

    Do you mean it should NOT be called Redaction Tool?

    I don't think so; read that last sentence again.

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