A lawsuit filed by a school supervisory union district against a student parent and vocal policy critic was dismissed by Rutland superior court on Tuesday. The district sued Marcel Cyr, a parent, for placing a public records request.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont hailed the dismissal as a victory for government transparency. Dan Barrett, an attorney for the ACLU, says the decision makes it clear that only a citizen can sue a public agency over a records request, not the other way around.
“The supervisory union’s idea to sue someone who makes a public records request is a major threat to open government,” said ACLU-VT executive director Allen Gilbert, in a statement. “The school’s strategy would place concerned citizens and news organizations at the potential peril of having to hire a lawyer and defend themselves every time they make a public records request.”
The suit filed by Addison Rutland Supervisory Union asked the court to decide whether a public records request by Cyr, a Benson resident and the father of a student in the district, had to be answered. On Tuesday the court said that it couldn’t make a determination because it would be contrary to statute and legislative intent.
Cyr’s request sought underlying records relevant to a no-trespass notice the union issued in March 2012, which banned him from all school property for two years.
One relevant record was a document produced by a mental health professional, which warned that Cyr could be dangerous to ARSU employees. The professional requested anonymity for fear of her own safety.
Court records say that Cyr doesn’t have a criminal record, and isn’t on Vermont’s sex offender, elder abuse, or child abuse registries.
Cyr’s original lawsuit against the supervisory union, filed in March 2012, said that his ongoing vocal criticism of education officials on policy matters led the union to spring an abrupt and unjustified trespass ban on him, without due notice or chance for a hearing.
Cyr claimed his constitutional rights to free expression and due process had been violated, alongside his rights to access public records, after the union initially failed to provide him with documents. He requested that the court cancel the union’s no-trespass order and award him damages and legal fees.
The union’s lawyer, Pietro Lynn, explained that the union first sought guidance from the attorney general’s office on whether the document with advice from the medical professional was exempt.
“The district sought advice from the attorney general’s office as to whether this was a public record that must be produced. The attorney general’s office refused to help us,” Lynn said. “Then we sought guidance from the court. The court will not provide us with guidance.”
Lynn said the district will release the document in the next few days.
Lynn said the union hadn’t sought damages against Cyr. “All we asked for was a declaration from the court. He was named as a party, because he was the person that requested the record: we thought it was important that he have a say.”
“Nothing compelled him to hire a lawyer, there was nothing at stake financially for him,” Lynn said. “We never declined to provide him with the record: what we did was seek guidance before we had to make that decision.”
Barrett, one of Cyr’s lawyers, said Cyr had hired himself and another lawyer, Ted Hobson, for the public records case, and had definitely incurred court costs, though Barrett didn’t know how much exactly.
“We were really worried, first of all, that Marcel had to defend himself against a lawsuit,” said Barrett. “More importantly and broadly, if agencies could do this, newspapers and citizens would be in trouble, would be at peril of being sued by an agency.”
“Our act is pretty clear that only a public records requester can file suit,” over a records request, said Barrett.
As for concerns for the safety of the tipster, Barrett said the document should be released. He said the court questioned whether the tipster had been asked by the district to write up a record portraying Cyr as a danger.
“In this case I think it’s laughable. If you were to ever meet Marcel, he’s no threat. He’s not going to harm anybody. … In this instance, I don’t see any real threat of harm from disclosure of the person.”
“It’s really important for government agencies in Vermont to understand that criticism is normal and healthy,” Barrett said. “Someone comes to a government meeting and criticizes a school board in public comments: he can’t be frozen out. That’s just part of democracy, and something that school boards and select boards sometimes don’t understand.”
Lynn pitched the case and its dismissal as a part of a careful balancing act between transparency and safety: “This is a case where it is clear that sometimes concerns about safety and concerns about transparency can be difficult to balance.”
Barrett didn’t know of a similar case in Vermont, though he’d said that there’d been precedents in California and Rhode Island, where courts also ruled in favor of public records requesters, rather than siding with government agencies.