When Governments Sue Citizens to Suppress Transparency

 

“These lawsuits are an absurd practice and noxious to open government.” That’s how the Associated Press quotes University of Kansas journalism professor Jonathan Peters, speaking about a troubling trend in recent years of government bodies suing citizens who seek disclosure of public documents through open-records laws.

I know all about these types of absurd lawsuits. Last year the Tuftonboro, NH Board of Selectmen (at the time: Carolyn Sundquist, Lloyd Wood, and Bill Marcussen) sued me and another Tuftonboro resident, Bob McWhirter, when we requested to inspect government records. They spent around $20,000 (and counting) in a vain attempt to charge us 25 cents per page to inspect the records, even though New Hampshire’s Right to Know law states that “no fee shall be charged for the inspection or delivery, without copying, of governmental records, whether in paper, electronic, or other form.” The selectmen’s attorney, Richard Sager of Ossipee, argued in court that the law doesn’t make sense because, if read literally, it meant that the selectmen couldn’t charge us a fee. And they wanted to charge us a fee.

They lost their lawsuit when Carroll County Superior Court Judge Amy Ignatius ruled that they couldn’t charge us a fee. But as the AP quotes Mike Deshotels in its article, “You can lose even when you win.” Deshotels was sued by the Louisiana Department of Education when he requested school enrollment data. The DOE lost in court, like the Tuftonboro selectmen, but Deshotels incurred legal costs, like Bob and me, defending himself from an attack on his right to know what his government was doing.

These types of abusive lawsuits are happening all over the country, according to the AP. But in Michigan, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill this spring, 108–0, that would prohibit government bodies from suing citizens who are requesting documents. The bill needs to be passed by the Michigan Senate before becoming law.

Tuftonboro selectmen spent $20,000 of taxpayers’ money in an effort to make it more difficult to get access to public records. Would they have done that if it was their own $20,000? It’s easy to spend other people’s money. Even after the court’s ruling on August 8, the selectmen have yet to turn over a single email to me or Bob.

New Hampshire should make it illegal for government bodies to sue citizens who are requesting documents.

There are 10 comments.

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  1. Mike-K Member
    Mike-K
    @

    I wonder that the judge didn’t assign court costs to the losing side. Years ago, I was sued for malpractice, the only time such a suit ever went to court in my case. The court, in addition to finding me not liable, assigned $25,000 in costs to the plaintiffs. Of course, we never collected but the local officials might have deeper pockets than those people did.

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    It doesn’t seem likely that one would be able to lawyer “no fee shall be charged” into anything other than that.

    • #2
  3. Max Ledoux Admin
    Max Ledoux
    @Max

    We did counter-sue for attorneys fees, but the judge ruled that the selectmen hadn’t actually violated the Right to Know law because they were willing to give us the emails, they just wanted to know if they could charge a fee for doing so. So she didn’t award us costs.

    However, it’s 7 weeks later and they still haven’t produced any emails, so are they really willing to give us the emails?

    • #3
  4. Pugshot Member
    Pugshot
    @Pugshot

    Max Ledoux Post author

    We did counter-sue for attorneys fees, but the judge ruled that the selectmen hadn’t actually violated the Right to Know law because they were willing to give us the emails, they just wanted to know if they could charge a fee for doing so. So she didn’t award us costs.
    However, it’s 7 weeks later and they still haven’t produced any emails, so are they really willing to give us the emails?

    Time for a motion to compel (or for contempt of court for failing to follow the court’s order) accompanied by a request for attorney’s fees for having to file the motion.

    • #4
  5. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Keep it up, Max. Concede nothing.

    • #5
  6. Max Ledoux Admin
    Max Ledoux
    @Max

    Update: the selectmen’s attorney, Richard Sager, told us took “get a life” and mocked my co-defendent for following my lead like a “puppy dog.”

    See here at my town blog:

    http://tuftonboro.net/max/town-government/board-of-selectmen/richard-sager-calls-bob-mcwhirter-puppy-dog-tells-get-life/

     

    • #6
  7. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    As Mark Steyn has said in his endless law suit, “the process is the punishment”….

    • #7
  8. Max Ledoux Admin
    Max Ledoux
    @Max

    • #8
  9. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    Max, are you going to run for one of the Selectmen positions?

    You should.

    • #9
  10. Tedley Member
    Tedley
    @Tedley

    Pretty brazen of your “representatives.”  And “rick” in your blog sure sounds like one of the opposition.

    • #10

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