Terrible Idea of the Day

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Well, you might not be able to speak freely about politics, but at least you have the right to ask the government to cough up its documents. For a price:

RALEIGH—North Carolina cities and other government agencies are pursuing the authority to sue citizens who ask to see public records.

Lawyers for local governments and the University of North Carolina are talking about pushing for a new state law.

That law would allow pre-emptive lawsuits against citizens, news organizations and private companies to clarify the law when there is a dispute about providing records or opening meetings.

Link via Secrecy News.

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  1. Holy Shit.

  2. Sue for what exactly? Pre-Emptively?

    Holy Shit is right! That’s a new level of bizarre.

  3. I don’t get it, how can the government sue citizen over something the government has that the citizens don’t, before they’ve even asked for it?

  4. Prepare, folks. The revolution cometh.

  5. And not a moment too soon.

  6. The way things are going, perhaps a “Terrible Idea of the Hour” blog is not far off.

    Wait, I’m soaking in it!

  7. It doesn’t necessarily sound nefarious to me. I don’t know what the NC FOIA laws are like, but I imagine there are many local disputes over it. Many times, this may involve things like personnel files, or meeting notes for “secret” meetings (such as meetings at which personnel issues are discussed). Instead of waiting to be sued by the person issuing the FOIA request, the local government could escalate the dispute immediately to the courts in order to obtain a quicker resolution.

    An AP snippet like this brings so little to the table that it is hard to know the substance of what is actually being proposed. If my prior assumptions are correct, I don’t particularly understand the value of the law, but I also don’t see the immediate threat to liberty. If there is a FOIA dispute, sooner or later, it is going to end up in the courts anyhow.

  8. The key word here is “public”. As in “public”.

  9. MP, read the local article linked at Secrecy News–much more detail.

    Also:

    “If there is a FOIA dispute, sooner or later, it is going to end up in the courts anyhow.”

    Yes, IF you choose to pursue it–you are under no obligation to do so, however. The issue can remain unresolved, with no negative precedent established. You can always revisit it later, if need be.

    If the state sues you pre-emptively, you must defend, or you can be defaulted, considered a resolution on the merits. The issue is now foreclosed.

  10. Could broadcasters use this law to sue folks who demand to see their public file? The ones who visit my station always demand coffee and raid our vending machines.

  11. There are times when government power pulls off its smiley face mask and then reveals the monstrosity that it is.

  12. Bbbwwwwaaaaah?

  13. Da’ f–k? I can already see the slogan:
    Your government. Working harder to turn back everything the Founding Fathers wrought.

  14. from http://www.edgarsnyder.com/resources/terms/s.html

    sue. The act of bringing a lawsuit.

    suit or lawsuit. Generally, a court action brought by one person, the plaintiff, against another, the defendant , seeking compensation for some injury or enforcement of a right.

    It doesn’t really sound all that sinister to me.

  15. That’s amazing that you came up with that definition from the worst ambulance-chaser in Western Pennsylvania’s website.

  16. Considering that the public agency can (and many do) simply refuse any records request, it’s hard to see what the public body could possibly have to gain from “clarifying the law.” Especially given that in the North Carolina lawsuit that the longer story explains, the city sought ATTORNEY’S FEES from the newspaper it sued. That’s nothing but blatant SLAPP-ing.

    Now, you’d think any self-respecting citizens would promptly throw out the bums who spend tax dollars on lawyers to prevent the public from knowing how its own money is spent. You’d be mistaken.

  17. Trotsky is correct. Jf’s post actually proves that such lawsuits are a blatant abuse of process. The municipality, by simply being confronted with a request which they may deny and for which they may be sued if it is believed that the denial is unlawful, is deprived of no right. In the absence of a lawsuit, the records remain unreleased and the municipality is not deprived of any supposed right to keep records private.

    Such frivolous lawsuits also undermine the purpose of a freedom of information statute. If someone wishes to exercise their right to request documents, they may be too intimidated by threat of legal action to make any attempt to exercise the right.

  18. There also seems to be a much simpler way for the government entity to accomplish its aims: ask the attorney general’s office for an opinion on whether or not they must comply with the information request. Don’t go suing your citizens who simply ask for information.

  19. I’m somewhat amazed that the government doesn’t employ the “Purloined Letter” method of keeping secrets. Scan and web publish *everything*, from the City Council minutes to the Post-It notes reminding the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Left-Handed Water Fountains to pick up milk on the way home. The amount of data would prove overwhelming.

    That said, “pre-emptive law suits to clarify the law”? How about we get the legislature to clarify the law like so: everything is available. Including personnel records. If you don’t want your personnel record to be public, don’t take a job with the government. Kee-rist, the job application process for government is the most invasive I’ve ever encountered already, so it’s not like government workers aren’t used to the idea.

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