SACRAMENTO (AP) — A state Court of Appeal has ruled that a small-town California newspaper publisher does not have to pay legal fees to a school board he sued over his public records request —a decision hailed by First Amendment advocates as a victory for government transparency.
A loss in the case could have chilled the public and journalists from challenging government agencies that are withholding documents sought under California’s Public Records Act, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. He said that fear of being hit with legal fees could deter people from suing to obtain public records.
“This has reaffirmed that people have a right, if they are denied public records, to go to court and try to get that decision reversed and as long as it’s in good faith you won’t be in the disastrous position of having to pay the government’s legal fees,” said Scheer. “Had it gone the other way, all bets would have been off.”
Neither attorneys for the school board nor the district superintendent immediately returned telephone calls seeking comment.
FAC organized the appeal and, with one of its board members, underwrote the paper’s legal expenses.
The case came out of Glenn County, an agricultural community in Northern California, where the publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror had sought emails that might have shown the Willows Unified School District was using school resources to influence a political campaign, a story line that ultimately fizzled out. He filed a request under the California Public Records Act for all of the superintendent’s emails.
Tim Crews, who started the 3,000-circulation paper 23 years ago with “$50 in my pocket,” said the school board delayed its response and he eventually sued to get the information he was seeking.
The school district began delivering copies of the emails the day after Crews filed suit. A Superior Court judge later ruled that the lawsuit was frivolous because the district was complying and Crews should have settled with it. He ordered the publisher to pay more than $56,000 in legal fees the school district had amassed.
The Court of Appeal ruled that while Crews ultimately may not have won, the case had enough merit that it couldn’t be considered frivolous.
The financial hit would have crushed the paper, where Crews, 69, is a dying breed of small-town publishers. He still gets out of bed at 2 a.m. to take photos of car wrecks, and he writes stories, edits copy and delivers papers.
“Small-town newspapering is not a way to get rich,” he said. “It’s high risk all the time. We win a lot of awards, but you can’t eat them. Times are difficult.”
First amendment attorneys worked with Crews at discounted fees.
“The litigation costs have been substantial, but we didn’t want to make bad law and we didn’t want other little newspapers and other users of the California Public Records Act to be intimidated by this kind of ruling,” Crews said. “I’m vastly relieved.”
The California Newspaper Publishers Association and several publishers filed a brief in defense of Crews.