Paper files public records request—and city’s response is a lawsuit

From The Columbia Journalism Review

When a newspaper requests information, there are plenty of ways government bodies can try to avoid releasing it. But the city of Billings, MT, has come up with a novel tactic: Sue the paper simply for asking.

Now, because of the lawsuit, a state judge is currently deciding how to weigh the public’s right to know against an individual’s right to privacy in a place where both are part of the state’s constitution.

Events leading up to this strange legal case stem from last spring, when someone called in a tip to the Billings Gazette, the local daily. The source suggested there might be some mishandling of public funds at the city landfill. So reporters at the paper did what journalists do: They started poking around and asking city officials about it.

According to the paper’s editor, Darrell Ehrlick, officials told reporters an investigation was underway to determine if indeed something stinky was happening at the city dump. The Gazette followed up on the progress of the probe every few weeks to see if there was anything to report. After a while—“As with so many things in government, a journalist’s timeline and a government’s are two very different things,” Ehrlick says—officials indicated the investigation was over, and the city would respond to a formal inquiry about it.

On June 26, 2014, Ehrlick filed a written public records request on behalf of his paper, asking for any record the city had related to an investigation of landfill funds or property being mishandled, misused, or misappropriated.

The timeline of events was pretty straightforward up to that point. “We thought that the process was working fairly well,” Ehrlick told CJR.

Until it wasn’t. Instead of responding to the records request, the city of Billings sued the newspaper.

The city’s argument? According to reports on the case, if the Gazette got the information it wanted, the paper would be able to determine the names of city employees who had been disciplined for their actions. Those city employees might then be able to sue the city for violating their right to privacy by releasing information about them to the paper.

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