Thursday, 12 March 2020

NH Supreme Court rules in favor of KSC students in public-records case | Local News | sentinelsource.com



NH Supreme Court rules in favor of KSC students in public-records case | Local News


The N.H. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled against the city of Keene on several points in a lawsuit stemming from the city’s response to public-records requests from student journalists in 2017.
The dispute arose when students in a Keene State College journalism class taught by Professor Marianne Salcetti requested records from the city as part of an assignment. The requests were submitted under N.H. RSA 91-A, also known as the Right-to-Know Law, which says government records are public unless covered by a specific exemption.
The city partially or wholly denied the requests of five students who had asked for records related to restaurant inspections, certain types of criminal investigations and complaints about police officers’ use of force, though other students’ requests were fulfilled.
Salcetti and the students appealed those denials in court. Judge David W. Ruoff of Cheshire County Superior Court largely sided with the city, leading to the N.H. Supreme Court challenge, aided by prominent First Amendment attorney Gregory V. Sullivan.
Most of the denials had to do with technical issues, such as the city’s interpretation that the students were asking for custom lists or database reports and not existing records, though the request for excessive-force complaints was denied at least in part on an exemption related to personnel practices that the N.H. Supreme Court has since modified.


In their clean Wednesday, the Supreme Court justices ruled that the city improperly interpreted three requests as asking for specially tailored “lists” of information, rather than for the existing records themselves. By law, a public entity must hand over whatever records it has but is not required to compile that information into a new format.
The court also held that the city should not have quoted one student a fee of about $300 to review more than 1,000 pages of emails, which the city said it would have had to print out. The Supreme Court pointed to a requirement that government entities must keep their records in a form that is accessible to the public and cannot charge someone for merely inspecting a public record.
The justices sent two other matters back to Ruoff’s courtroom, with instructions for how to reconsider them. Given that the students requested existing records, not new lists, Ruoff must determine whether city staff performed an adequate search for those records.
He is also to decide whether the city must release unredacted copies of citizen complaints against police officers and reveal the names of officers listed in a summary report of excessive-force complaints. A pair of Supreme Court decisions Friday that make it easier to obtain records related to internal disciplinary processes will likely factor into that analysis.
Noting the case’s long journey, which started with the requests being filed in the fall of 2017 and the lawsuit brought that December, the justices encouraged cooperation between government officials and members of the public who request records.
“In conclusion, we observe that this dispute has consumed an inordinate amount of time, energy, and resources — judicial and otherwise,” the clean stated. “The salutary purpose of the Right-to-Know Law — to ‘ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people’ … — is best served when the members of the public and the governmental bodies are guided by a spirit of collaboration.”
While settling questions specific to the Keene case, the court’s order does not set any new precedent that changes the scope of public-records law in New Hampshire.
Salcetti, who acted as a nonattorney representative for students Colby Dudal, Alex Fleming, Meridith King, Grace Pecci and Abbygail Vasas, said she was pleased with the decision.
“I am ecstatic that the New Hampshire Supreme Court with this ruling unanimously recognized and valued the right-to-know issues raised by the Keene State College journalism students in their quest for public information,” Salcetti said Wednesday. “All five of the requests dealt with information all citizens have a right to access.”
She said the students all graduated but have stayed in touch and are keeping up with the case.
Keene City Attorney Thomas Mullins said the city is eager to Decide the case in accordance with Wednesday’s ruling.
“The city believes that the trial court decision was a right interpretation of the law, but the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s decision is to be respected,” he said, “and the city will work with the trial court and Professor Salcetti and her students to come to an Difference on how to disclose the documents.”
Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS
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