(Editor Martin L. Cahn’s column will return next week. In his place, we offer this guest column by S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender about a Freedom of Information problem in Mt. Pleasant.)
I don’t live in Mount Pleasant, but if I were a newspaper columnist writing regularly about the shenanigans of local officials, I’d want to live there. I would never run out of material.
Not so long ago the Office of the Attorney General of South Carolina issued an opinion that town council had violated the law by bringing a controversial matter up for a vote without proper notice to the public that action would be taken. That same opinion said that town attorneys were wrong to advise council members that they faced individual liability if they did not approve the settlement of a suit over a zoning change.
Now it seems the town’s attorneys are advising the police department and council members that they could face individual liability if a police report were made public. The town has received a letter from an attorney identifying himself as representing “the minor referenced as the victim” in a town of Mount Pleasant police incident report. As an aside, there is no victim identified as such in the report.
The police investigated a disturbance at Cario Middle School on October 18, 2018. The initial investigation concerned a complaint that one student had threatened to cut the hair of another student. According to the police report, “The school handled the incident administratively.”
The more interesting part of the report is in the supplement written by an officer listed as PFC Gilliard. According to the report, a person whose name has been blacked out of the report was “belligerent” and threatened to enter the classroom area of the school to protect his child who was one of the children in the “haircutting” incident. According to the report, Dr. Valente informed this parent that if he entered the school without going through proper channels, he could be in legal trouble.
The report states that the belligerent parent “insinuated” that there would be a conflict of interest if the incident were investigated by the school resource officer, a town of Mount Pleasant police officer, because the parent was the boss of the officer by virtue of the parent’s position as a “Town [redacted]”.
I’m guessing the parent is, or was in October 2018, a member of town council. I’m guessing the town council member’s surname has about seven letters in it with the last letter being an “e.”
I’m also guessing that the threatening letter to the town was written by a lawyer hired by the belligerent parent / council member.
My last guess is that the attorneys for the town are more interested in protecting the belligerent parent / council member from public scrutiny for his actions than in insuring that the town limits secret government activity.
The Supreme Court of South Carolina decided years ago that even if there is an exemption from the mandatory disclosure requirements in the Freedom of Information Act for such things as “unreasonable invasion of personal privacy,” there is no liability for releasing information in a police report or other public record. I’m not the attorney for the town, and have no interest in that position, but my assessment is that the police should have released the report without having redacted the council member’s name, and no one is at risk of liability for the report having been released.
I think it was appropriate to redact the names of the two students involved in the initial “haircutting” investigation. If there were a legitimate interest in protecting the identity of the child of the belligerent parent / council member, all that would have been necessary would have been the redaction of the one word that appears in two places in the report and states the relationship of the child to the parent.
Just another day in paradise for a columnist.
(Guest columnist Jay Bender is a retired University of South Carolina professor and media lawyer who represents the S.C. Press Association and its newspapers.)