Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals dismissing Appellant's petition for a writ of mandamus against Baker, Dublikar, Beck, Wiley & Mathews (the Baker firm), Public Entity Risk Services of Ohio (PERSO), and the Ohio Township Association Risk Management Authority (OTARMA) seeking to obtain unreacted copies of invoices that the Baker firm had prepared for PERSO, holding that the court of appeals did not properly apply the standard of review in dismissing Appellant's petition.Appellant brought this action under Ohio's Public Records Act, Ohio Rev. Code 149.43, seeking a writ of mandamus ordering Appellees to produce unreacted copies of the requested records. The court of appeals determined that Appellees were subject to the Act despite their private-party status but dismissed the petition on the ground that the records were protected by the attorney-client privilege. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) PERSO was not immune from suit; and (2) the court of appeals department from the Civ.R. 12(B)(6) standard. View "State ex rel. Ames v. Dublikar, Beck, Wiley & Mathews" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals denying a writ of mandamus compelling the city of Cleveland to disclose use-of-force (UOF) reports on the grounds that UOF reports are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act, Ohio Rev. Code 149.43, as confidential law-enforcement investigatory records (CLEIR), holding that the court of appeals erred.UOF reports are prepared whenever a Cleveland police officer uses force in the course of the officer's duties. Appellants brought this mandamus action against Cleveland seeking disclosure of the reports. The court of appeals denied the requested writ, holding that the reports were exempt as CLEIR. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Cleveland did not meet its burden to prove that the exception at issue applied to the specific information contained in the reports. View "State ex rel. Standifer v. Cleveland" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the circuit court partially denying Appellant's petition for a writ of mandamus and purportedly denying his request for attorney's fees and costs, holding that the circuit court misapplied a definition of "personnel information."In his mandamus petition, Appellant requested documents related to employment disputes in the Town of South Hill, as well as attorney's fees and costs. The circuit court denied the petition in part after applying definitions of "personnel record" from a previous version of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) instead of "personnel information." The court further refused to award attorney's fees and costs. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that the circuit court erred in its interpretation and application of the personnel information exemption under VFOIA. View "Hawkins v. Town of South Hill" on Justia Law

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A public body has five-10 business days to respond to a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 ILCS 140/3(d), (e)). In 2014, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) received FOIA requests from local newspapers for information relating to citizen complaints filed against Chicago police officers since 1967. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) sought to enjoin the release of files that were more than four years old; its collective bargaining agreement required the destruction of records of alleged police misconduct at that age. The court granted the FOP an injunction prohibiting the release of files that were more than four years old as of the date of the newspapers’ FOIA request. . Meanwhile, Green, who was convicted in 1986 of offenses arising from a quadruple homicide, became aware that files he wants could be destroyed. He hopes to prove his innocence by exposing police misconduct. Green sent CPD a FOIA request. CPD did not respond.The Illinois Supreme Court held that unless the FOIA exemption states otherwise, the circuit court should review the withholding of information under the circumstances that existed when the public body made its decision. If the information becomes releasable later, a requester may refile his request. When CPD constructively denied Green’s request, an injunction barred CPD from releasing responsive files that were more than four years old. The subsequent invalidation of the injunction was immaterial. View "Green v. Chicago Police Department" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals granting a writ of mandamus compelling East Cleveland Mayor Brandon King and the East Cleveland mayor and finance director (collectively, Appellants) to produce documents in response to a public-records request but reversing the court of appeals' judgment granting an award of attorney fees, holding that the writ was properly granted.In this mandamus action, the court of appeals denied two of Appellee's claims for relief but granted a third issuing a writ of mandamus directing Appellants to produce certain documents. In a subsequent order, the court of appeals ordered Appellants to pay attorney fees. The Supreme Court reversed in part, holding that the court of appeals (1) properly granted a writ of mandamus for the production of public records; but (2) improperly granted the award of attorney fees. View "State ex rel. Stevenson v. King" on Justia Law

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A DEA task force investigated Jacobs, a Kentucky drug dealer. Jacobs sold drugs to a couple who allegedly were “good friends” with the local Commonwealth Attorney (CA). After Jacobs' arrest on state drug-trafficking charges, the couple had extensive conversations with the CA. After one conversation, an assistant state prosecutor requested Jacobs’s cell phone records from the task force, alerting the DEA to the CA’s relationship with Jacobs’s customers. The CA became involved in the case in other ways, impeding Jacobs’ use as a cooperating witness in other federal investigations by opposing a bond reduction and refusing to seek a state search warrant for an unrelated case if the DEA agent from the Jacobs investigation was involved. The DEA began investigating the CA’s conduct, “Operation Speakeasy.” Evidence was presented to the U.S. Attorney, who refused to bring obstruction charges against the CA.A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552 request with the DEA, seeking any document related to the Jacobs investigation or Operation Speakeasy. The DEA denied that request, citing an exception for “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes,” disclosure of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the Enquirer’s suit. The documents “only minimally advance[d] a public interest in shedding light on the decision” to not prosecute the CA and “significant privacy interests outweigh[ed] the proffered public interest.” View "Cincinnati Enquirer v. Department of Justice" on Justia Law

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In 2020, while wildfires swept through portions of Sonoma County, close to many homes, Sheriff Essick met with the County Board of Supervisors, fire officials, and members of the public in a streamed town hall meeting. Essick provided updates on an evacuation strategy and fielded questions from the public. When asked whether evacuated residents might be permitted to reenter mandatory evacuation zones to feed pets and animals left behind, Sheriff Essick refused to grant such permission, citing safety concerns. Sheriff Essick’s subsequent communications led to a harassment complaint. An independent investigator, Oppenheimer, conducted an inquiry and prepared a written report. A newspaper requested that the county release the complaint, the report, and various related documents) California Public Records Act (CPRA), Gov. Code 6250). The trial court denied Essick's request for a preliminary injunction barring the report's release. The court of appeal affirmed. The court rejected arguments that the Oppenheimer Report should be classified as confidential under CPRA exemptions for “peace officers” “personnel records,” or reports or findings relating to a complaint by a member of the public against a peace officer The county is not estopped from releasing the Oppenheimer Report nor bound to keep the results of the investigation confidential. Nothing in the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights explicitly grants or mentions confidentiality from CPRA requests, Sonoma County is not Essick's “employing agency.” View "Essick v. County of Sonoma" on Justia Law

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In consolidated actions, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that an offense-and-incident report, which initiates a police investigation and is a public record under Ohio’s Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43, is not limited to the form that police officers fill out in order to report the incident but also includes certain contemporaneous reports created by the investigating officers that document the officers’ observations and the statements of witnesses at the scene. The court ordered Chillicothe to disclose a limited number “supplement narratives” that the city had withheld when Myers had requested the public-record incident reports. The court concluded that other supplement narratives constitute confidential law-enforcement investigatory records, “investigatory work product,” under R.C. 149.43(A)(2)(c). The most important factor is timing; the initial observations by officers and the initial witness statements taken at the physical location close to the time that the incident occurred constitute incident information that may not be regarded as specific investigatory work product, even when the information has not been incorporated into the incident-report form. View "Myers v. Meyers" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that the public records law's general prohibition on pre-release judicial review of decisions to provide access to public records barred the claims brought by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and two other trade associations (WMC) seeking to stop the release of certain records.After the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel made public records requests to the Department of Health Services (DHS) for documents related to the COVID-19 pandemic WMC learned that DHS planned to respond by releasing a list of all Wisconsin businesses with more than twenty-five employees that have had at least two employees test positive for COVID-19 or that have had close case contacts. WMC brought this action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to stop the release. The circuit court granted a temporary injunction. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that WMC's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted because its claim was barred by Wis. Stat. 19.356(1). View "Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce v. Evers" on Justia Law

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Boston’s City Hall Plaza has three flagpoles; one flies the American flag and another the state flag. The city’s flag usually flies from the third pole but groups may hold ceremonies on the plaza during which participants may hoist a flag of their choosing on the third pole. Over 12 years, Boston approved the raising of about 50 unique flags for 284 such ceremonies, most were other countries’ flags, but some were associated with groups or causes. In 2017, Camp Constitution asked to hold an event on the plaza to celebrate the civic and social contributions of the Christian community and to raise the “Christian flag.” Worried that flying a religious flag could violate the Establishment Clause, the city approved the event but told the group it could not raise its flag. The district court and First Circuit upheld that decision.The Supreme Court reversed. Boston’s flag-raising program does not express government speech so Boston’s refusal to let Camp Constitution fly its flag violated the Free Speech Clause. Employing a “holistic inquiry,” the Court noted that the history of flag flying, particularly at the seat of government, supports Boston, but Boston did not shape or control the flags’ content and meaning and never intended to convey the messages on the flags as its own. The application process did not involve seeing flags before plaza events. The city’s practice was to approve flag raisings without exception. When the government does not speak for itself, it may not exclude private speech based on “religious viewpoint”; doing so “constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination.” View "Shurtleff v. Boston" on Justia Law