By Randy Ludlow, The Columbus Dispatch It’s gotten to the point that a Dispatch request for emails between two public employees over a three-month period is swatted away by bureaucrats as “ overly broad.”
Without commenting on motivations or the issue involved, the lawsuit filed by NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation against the Ohio Department of Health hands the Ohio Supreme Court a chance to restore some legal sanity to the state’s public records laws.
The health department refused to hand over two years of emails and records of phone calls over one year -- records which admittedly exist -- between agency officials and representatives of Ohio Right to Life. The agency argues the request is overly broad and, even if it wasn’t, it has no way to search for specific records.
In the wake of prior court rulings concerning “overly broad” records requests – public entities have broadly interpreted the justices’ opinions to increasingly deny records to the public, even when requests are fairly specific.
It seems, at times, that you must provide authors, subjects, dates and the name of the government lawyer’s dog to obtain emails and other documents. That defeats the main purpose of public records laws – to find out what government is up to without detailed insider knowledge.
In the lawsuit filed by Cleveland lawyer Subodh Chandra on NARAL’s behalf, he complained that the health department was demanding “excruciating precision” and requiring him to “ hyper identify” the emails and phone call records he was seeking. The health department declined to comment.
“But that thwarts the Public Records Act's fundamental purpose: nothing in the Act requires a requester to know a record actually exists before requesting it. Indeed, the existence of a record may be the very thing the requester is attempting to discover through the request,” he wrote.
“Once a requester has reasonably identified the requested records, the burden is on the public office to actually look for the records.”
Chandra also pointed to a 2006 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court that seems to have been reduced to irrelevance by subsequent rulings on “overly broad” public records requests.
Ruling on what constitutes a valid records request, the court wrote that it never has held that "the requester must specify the author and date of the records requested. Although this may be helpful in identifying the requested records, the failure to do so does not automatically result in an improper request for public records …
“We do not require perfection in public-records requests."