A Win For Open Government

Last week the state Supreme Court issued an important Freedom of Information Act decision involving records of alleged misconduct by public school and university teachers. Rejecting an argument that such records constituted “records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which are exempt from disclosure under the FOIA, a unanimous Supreme Court held that misconduct records must be disclosed to the public. Mark Pazniokas has an excellent story about the decision over at The CT Mirror.

I write to make two additional points.  First, Justice Eveleigh wrote a clear, cogent and compelling decision for the court, a decision that reaffirms the long-settled proposition that exemptions to the FOIA must be construed narrowly, a proposition too many state and local agencies often forget–sometimes on purpose I think.

Second, the decision undercuts the argument, voiced by some of my friends in the open government community, that the Supreme Court is actively hostile to the FOIA. To be sure, the court occasionally disappoints me when it comes to FOIA decisions. In close cases, I would prefer that it err in favor of, rather than against, disclosure. (See, e.g., my post about a police records decision it released in July 2014.) But I don’t think it is fair to call the court hostile to our state sunshine law.

Oftentimes, the problem lies not with the court, but with the law that it is interpreting, a law that has been amended too many times since it was enacted in 1975. The best way to get consistently “better” FOIA decisions out of the Supreme Court is to persuade the legislature of the value of open government–just look at the mess in Chicago caused by hiding public records about police misconduct–and fix some of the weaknesses with the act.  On that point I’m sure all of my open government friends agree.