Carroll County Times

More media join Times in email redaction petition vs. commissioners

The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and WMAR-TV have taken steps to join the Carroll County Times as defendants in a petition filed by the Carroll County Board of Commissioners that asks a judge to approve the county's policy of redacting email addresses from Maryland Public Information Act requests.

In February, the Times filed a request for all email distribution lists collected by the Board of Commissioners. Rather than comply with the request, in March, the Board of Commissioners filed a petition in Carroll County Circuit Court asking the court for permission to withhold the email lists.

After the board filed the court petition, the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and WMAR-TV all filed individual PIA requests for the commissioners' email distribution lists. The lawyers representing the Carroll County Times are in discussion with the county to have the other newspapers and TV station join the petition.

The Carroll County Times has until May 25 to file its response with the court.

Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, R-District 2, has willingly provided the Times with his email distribution list. He will be removed as a plaintiff in the petition, according to Charles Tobin, a media attorney with Holland & Knight in Washington, D.C., who will be representing the newspapers and television station. The other commissioners, Robin Bartlett Frazier, Dave Roush, Richard Rothschild and Doug Howard, will remain in the petition.

Tobin stressed the importance of having government records open and available to the public.

"As the primary watchdog over government, Maryland's major news media organizations strongly support the right of citizens to know what their government is up to," Tobin said. "That is the entire principle behind this dispute, and it is more important now than ever."

In December 2011, the Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to redact from public information requests all email addresses of private citizens who correspond with county officials or employees who sign up for county newsletters. The board then asked the Office of the Attorney General for a legal opinion regarding the practice.

A year later, in December 2012, the Maryland attorney general issued an opinion that stated that the county can temporarily withhold records if they quickly go to court, then establish that the records "would provide no information about the County government" and that, if released, "the circumstances would cause 'substantial injury' to the public interest."

While the Maryland Public Information Act contains exceptions applicable to certain senior citizens' and students' email addresses, it does not permit records custodians - which is the county attorney in Carroll government - to unilaterally withhold email addresses, the opinion stated.

"Email certainly provides a more efficient means for government to communicate, but we can't sacrifice transparency for efficiency," Tobin said. "Maryland's public records need to remain accessible to citizens, whether they are in paper form, stored electronically, or transmitted over the Internet."

There are five exceptions in which records custodians can withhold information requested in PIAs, according to the attorney general opinion.

If records custodians use an exception to not disclose certain information in a PIA request, they are required to prove why the exception applies. The first four exceptions do not allow the county attorney to withhold emails in PIA requests, according to the county attorney and the attorney general opinion.

However, the fifth exception allows records custodians to deny a request when they believe "that inspection would cause substantial injury to the public interest ... ." The exception comes with restrictions, including one that requires the records custodian to file a circuit court action within 10 days of issuing a records denial, according to the opinion. A court order would permit the continued denial of information access.

If the circuit court chooses to allow the county to redact email addresses to protect from injury to public interests, Carroll County Attorney Tim Burke has said that the decision may give him the authority to do it in other instances without having to go back to court.