CRT Battlefront: Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Plan To Limit Public Records Requests Runs Into Possible ACLU Roadblock
RI ACLU Director Steven Brown: “we have expressed our opposition to the only version of an amendment I have seen, and we would not support a bill that simply gave the Attorney General blanket authority to make such a determination”
I recently posted about a behind-the-scenes effort by the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association (RISSA), together with unions and friendly legislators, to curtail public rights under the RI Access to Public Records Act (APRA), in reaction to voluminous public records requests filed by South Kingstown mom Nicole Solas seeking information about Critical Race and Gender teaching in school.
The effort, revealed in documents obtained by the Legal Insurrection Foundation pursuant to APRA (ironically!), was punctuated with crude demonization of “right wing” groups and parents. See that post for details and screenshots, RI School Superintendents Group: “We all know many of our citizens live in a separate news reality with Fox, Newsmax and their ilk”:
… this no longer is only about Solas. It’s about how politics, and dislike of “right wing” parents and groups, has entered into the conversation among school superintendents, legislators, and others. Conservatives frequently claim the educational bureaucracy is hostile to them, and these documents seem to reflect that….
Parents opposing the obsessive racialization of their children’s education don’t have law firms on retainer, 8-figure budgets, lobbyists, “union friends,” leglistators on speed dial, public relations firms, or friendly local media. What they have is a collective feeling that education has gone very wrong, that the best interests of the children and the nation are not being served, and that much takes place in secret.
Information and transparency are the true battlefields. Public records requests level the playing field just a little bit for parents, which is why the attacks on public records requests are so intense.
RISSA circulated draft legislative language that would give public agencies, including school districts, the right to declare requests excessive and require the Attorney General’s Office to resolve the dispute. This would create substantial delay, and would divest the public of the presumptive right to public records. Here’s the language circulated by Tim Ryan, lobbyist for RISSA:
High Volume Or Multiple Requests For Access To Documents
In the event any request or series of requests for public documents under this statute to a single recipient is considered to be overly burdensome, that the recipient may request that the Attorney General intervene to form a reasonable compliance plan.
Such request must be made within ten business days after receiving the request. The Attorney General shall consider all such requests, determine if compliance within the terms of the statute are unduly burdensome to the recipient, and upon such finding shall develop a compliance plan. The Attorney General is authorized to waive any timelines in this statute in its compliance plan.
The Attorney General shall issue regulations effectuating this section on or before _________
This would provide parents like Solas additional hoops to jump through, and the Attorney General’s office itself could be overwhelmed since school districts and other agencies could force the AG’s office to take the dispute under consideration. The AG’s office, through no bad faith of its own, could turn into the place were public records requests go to die.
Significantly, in internal communications, Ryan indicated to the Superintendents that the Rhode Island ACLU, through its local Director Steve Brown, was “open” to changing APRA. If that were true, and the ACLU was on board with the language proposed by the school superintendents, that would be a big deal, since RI ACLU has been a champion of the public records law, and has a handy guide for the public.
On Wednesday, June 2, at 1:37 p.m., Ryan emailed numerous superintendents and others about the legislative efforts (emphasis added):
I’ve been working hard on the APRA request from the Parents Defending Education Group:
• I’ve been in touch with Linda about tonight’s SK School Committee meeting and the media
• I spoke with Steve Brown of the ACLU and he’s open to amending the law to deal with excessive APRA requests
• I forwarded the conversation with the ACLU to the Speaker’s Office
• Tim Duffy and I are in touch with our union friends.
As of the time of the prior article, I had not heard back from the ACLU’s Brown on the issue. At about 7 p.m. tonight I did hear back from Brown, and it’s clear that the RI ACLU is “open” to a change only to the extent that it does not “unequivocally object” to amending the law. Additionally, while not mentioning RISSA, Brown indicated that the only proposal he’s seen, which seems to mirror the RISSA proposal, is not acceptable to RI ACLU (emphasis added):
In talking to a few people about this issue, I have indicated that we do not unequivocally object to an amendment to APRA, if appropriately defined and limited, that would address abusive requests under the law. However, we have expressed our opposition to the only version of an amendment I have seen, and we would not support a bill that simply gave the Attorney General blanket authority to make such a determination.
ACLU of Rhode Island
So the picture is not quite as rosy as RISSA presented, at least as to the RI ACLU. If the RI ACLU opposed whatever legislation emerges, that would carry a lot of weight.
But RISSA may know something we don’t about the prospects in the legislature. It’s clear from their internal communications that they have a direct connection to legislators and “union friends.”
I’ve been cautioned that with the legislature approaching the end of the term, there is a risk of the normal rules being waived and a bill rushed through without much public notice. So it’s not over until it’s over, and it’s not over.DONATE
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