It seems that certain state officials are finding a new means of discouraging Louisiana citizens from seeking information about the way the public’s business is being conducted. This new tactic is nothing less than a form of official harassment that is both chilling and dangerous.
Transparency and accountability in government are currently hot news topics. Last week (May 26), a local Baton Rouge group, Leaders with Vision, held a lunch meeting and discussion with the theme, “Are Louisiana Sunshine Laws adequate in today’s 21st Century World?” Participants included Sen. Dan Claitor; Rep. Dee Richard; Former Baton Rouge Advocate Executive Editor and transparency advocate Carl Redman and LouisianaVoice Editor Tom Aswell.
Both the state and the federal government recognize the need for transparency in the democratic process. Louisiana passed the Louisiana Public Records Act, also known as Louisiana’s Sunshine Law, in 1940 – more than 25 years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. Anyone can request public records and the purpose of the request does not need to be stated. In fact, the custodian of the record is not allowed to ask the purpose. The major exemptions are pending criminal litigation; juvenile status offenders; sexual offense victims; security procedures; trade secrets; and some public employee information.
Unfortunately, not everyone in government agrees with the concept of transparency and accountability. We have public officials suing constituents in an obvious effort to prevent them from accessing public records. Two recent examples follow.
On May 27, A LouisianaVoice REPORT revealed that several judges in the 4th Judicial Circuit Court filed a lawsuit against The Ouachita Citizen and Publisher Sam Hanna, Jr to prevent the publication from seeking public records to which they were legally entitled. In this case, judges are suing a publication to prevent them from accessing public records concerning the court operation and their presumably dirty laundry.
Now we find that closer to home, John White has likewise filed a LAWSUIT against Mike Deshotels and Dr. James Finney over public record requests that they made to the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) – most likely because they have hit a nerve.
On May 31, 2016, Dr. James Finney detailed the history of the suits in a letter to the Governor, John White, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) members, and various state staff how the lawsuit came about:
As you may recall, I sent you an email March 12 (attached below) describing the status of several pending record requests that I had placed with John White and the Department of Education. I also mentioned the existence of a lawsuit (Finney vs White, 6395333, attached). That lawsuit, which was filed May 22, 2015, was set for trial in late April.
However, on April 11, Mr. White’s attorney requested and was granted a continuance, presumably to become better prepared for trial and to resolve a scheduling conflict with the Department’s sole witness. Rather than prepare for trial, however, it seems that Mr. White instead instructed his attorney to file two lawsuits against me which appear to be groundless, unnecessary, and against the public interest. Meanwhile, Mr. White and his staff have made no effort to address the 35 pending requests which are subject of my lawsuit.
The first new lawsuit (White vs Finney, 647827, attached) addresses five requests I made in fall 2015, five that I made in February of this year, and one that I made in March. In the lawsuit, Mr. White apparently is asking the judge to create special conditions on Louisiana’s public records law. It seems that, for whatever reason, Mr. White is bending over backward to make sure the public has no idea what statistical distributions LEAP, iLEAP, or EOC test scores follow. Are they symmetric? Skewed? Bimodal? Uniform? Nor does he, it seems, wish the public to have any means of verifying that School or District Performance Scores have been fairly and accurately calculated.
The second new lawsuit (White vs Deshotels et al, 647953, attached) attempts to reverse favorable judgments Mr. Deshotels received in two prior lawsuits, and apply that reversal (which seems unlikely given that the 19th JDC is not an appellate court) to a subsequent request by Mr. Deshotels and also to one of my requests. He seeks to use Mr. Deshotels and I as pawns, and cost us additional time and money, to establish a data-suppression policy that was already soundly rejected at court.
I have repeatedly requested meetings with Mr. White and/or his staff to work out arrangements that allow the public to have access to important public records without compromising student privacy nor causing the Department undue burden. I have consistently been rebuffed. And now we’re tangled in litigation in three different divisions of the local district court.
Most of my requests to date, and all that are subject to litigation thus far, could be collected into the following six categories. I trust you would consider these all to be important and of potential public interest:
- calculation details regarding Value-Added Modeling as performed by the Department
- voucher programs’ exact enrollments and costs, and demographics of voucher students
- test-score distributions and technical reports
- details of School and District Performance Score calculations adequate to verify accuracy and credibility
- charter schools’ enrollments, charters and leases, and other information
- exact enrollment numbers with no more suppression than is absolutely required to protect the anonymity of an individual student
I urge you as a body to ask Mr. White to defend his position regarding data secrecy, and his preference for litigation over useful dialogue. Is the department in service to the public, or to test-creators, charter networks and private schools? Have the school grades and Value-Added measures been calculated fairly? How will we ever know? Is Southern politeness more important than democracy? Is it appropriate to sue citizens rather than responding properly to public record requests? Please ponder those questions carefully, and provide the appropriate guidance to the Superintendent who is employed at your pleasure.
Dr. James Finney
As one might expect, the suits against Deshotels and Finney are funded by you, the taxpayer, as the LDOE has brought the suit using LDOE funds. Deshotels and Finney are on their own when it comes to legal fees related to these suits. Just to be clear: You are covering the costs for John White to sue private citizens to prevent them from exercising their constitutional rights.
Of course, Deshotels and Dr. Finney intend to pursue the suit in the courts, rather than ask for a dismissal, to press forward on their requests to this public information that is critical to determining the impact of various policies on our children’s education and the efficacy of the charter experiment in Louisiana. (Remember the last time the government experimented in the south? It happened at Tuskegee.)
As Mercedes Schneider recently noted in her blog deutsch29, “Suing private citizens over public record requests is a new low for an already sorry excuse of a state superintendent. However, it seems that with White, no low is too low.” https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/la-superintendent-john-white-sues-citizens-who-made-public-records-requests/
The use of virtually unlimited financial and legal resources (at taxpayer expense, no less) to beat down citizens with limited funds to fight back poses an unprecedented and dangerous threat to the very checks and balances upon which our government is founded.
When will Governor Edwards tire of this excuse for a superintendent and encourage the BESE board to bring John White’s tenure up for a vote? Let’s get the BESE members on record as to whether they stand for Louisiana’s children or for the out-of-state interests that bought their seats. Let’s decide, once and for all, if BESE stands for accountability or for secrecy.
For Edwards, the Legislature, and BESE to sit back and do nothing about this infringement upon the public’s right to know should be seen as an endorsement of clandestine activity worthy only of our distrust and fear.