Judge In Broward County Documents Case Decides The First Amendment Doesn't Cover These Public Records

from the 'freedom-of-the-press-is-nice-and-all,-but-shut-the-hell-up' dept

So much for my powers of prediction. After a Florida newspaper was hit with a request for contempt charges for publishing parts of a document a local school board tried (but failed) to redact, I suggested the court would side with the paper and say a few strong words about proper redaction techniques and the First Amendment. I could not be more wrong.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said the newspaper flouted her order that portions of a school district report about Cruz should remain shielded from the public. In the future, she declared, she will consider listing exactly what the newspaper can and cannot print.

So much for the vaunted First Amendment. While judges are welcome to deliver instructions about what can or cannot be printed (provided they don't mind violating the First Amendment 90% of the time), there's no reason to hand out these instructions to document recipients in public records lawsuits like this one. That's why redaction exists: so public entities can fulfill their public records obligations while withholding information that qualifies for exemptions or to comply with privacy laws. If the respondent screws up the redaction, there's no legal obligation for new agencies or any other records requester to pretend what wasn't supposed to be accessible isn't accessible. The burden is on the government to perform its job correctly.

No laws were violated by the Sun Sentinel's discussion of parts of the document that were supposed to be withheld. It acquired the document lawfully -- in fact, as a result of this court's order -- and discovered the redaction technique used didn't actually redact anything. Parts of what was withheld by the school shows the Broward County School Board mishandled some of its interactions with the Parkland shooter. This obviously was of great interest to the public, so there's no question that part weighs heavily in the favor of the paper's First Amendment rights.

What's worse is the judge stated in court the Sun Sentinel did something devious to expose the supposedly-redacted information, when it was actually the Broward County School Board that failed to do its job properly.

“You all manipulated that document so that it could be unredacted,” Scherer said. “That is no different than had they given it to you in an old-fashioned format, with black lines, and you found some type of a light that could view redacted portions and had printed that. It’s no different.”

Um… OK. What the hell does this even mean? Would she be coming down on a public records recipient who was handed the wrong documents or entire pages that were supposed to be withheld? Would she have harsh words for a recipient who received someone else's requested documents thanks to a bureaucratic screw-up and published those? Here's how Judge Scherer thinks the First Amendment should be applied to public records:

“From now on if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print – and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie … then I’ll do that,” she said.

Whew. Sounds like prior restraint. The only entity that should be restrained is the government in public records lawsuits, and only what's absolutely necessary to be withheld should be withheld. It's not up to the judge to hand out a line-by-line order on publication to recipients. The restraint should target the government and no one else. If the government screws up, that's on it, not those who've lawfully acquired the documents.

Given this terrible take on the First Amendment, I can offer a much better prediction this time around: the Sun Sentinel's anti-SLAPP motion against the Broward County School most likely will not be entertained by this court. Whatever was said here is the judiciary standard in Judge Scherer's court. And it sets an extremely low bar for government agencies who think others should be yelled at for the government's failures.

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Filed Under: broward county, broward county school board, elizabeth scherer, first amendment, florida, free speech, prior restraint
Companies: sun sentinel

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Aug 2018 @ 9:10am

    I don't know how newspapers run but to speed up the the process of lots of different formats, I would have all documents run through and OCR system and converted to unformatted text. If the document only used a black highlighter, no one would have even seen that the document was improperly redacted.

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