Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Public Documents Snafu

There is no standard playbook for redacting documents

When it comes to Public Documents Law (Massachusetts version of the Freedom Of Information Act) I'm a "strict constructionist."

In other words -- like the Attorney General -- I consider almost anything put in writing by a town employee, elected official or appointed committee member to be a public document.

Trick is to know what to ask for and who to ask.

On July 15, based on inside information, I requested "Any emails over the past 10 days sent between Regional School Committee members or directed at ARPS administrators discussing the release of
settlement documents in the Carolyn Gardner affair."

On July 27 I received a single file that contained seven emails that fit the description.  One of the emails was Superintendent Geryk complaining about my already publishing one of her emails to a Regional School Committee member (who was NOT my source).

I of course instantly published the material, floating the document on Scribd, which makes it easier for readers and gives me a total number of views.

The next day I was informed that the documents sent to me had been redacted but did not show up as redacted on my upload.  Turns out it was a computer snafu between a windows file and my Mac.

By that time the document already had over 1,200 views and any one of those people could have downloaded it to their computer with a single click.  Since my friends in the bricks and mortar media seem to follow me pretty closely, I assumed that had already happened.

So NO, the schools never formally requested I take down the document and replace it with the corrected one (sent the second time as a PDF).  But it does bring up interesting questions.

What if I had used technology to undue their redactions and then willfully published it?

Interestingly if public officials ignore public documents requests you take it to the Public Records Division of the Secretary of State's office and they send a threatening letter to the public officials.

But since the Public Records Division has no enforcement powers said officials can continue to ignore you.

When viewing exactly what was redacted it becomes clear the main thing the Schools want kept secret is they like to keep things secret. As in using a "confidentiality statement," which time and time again has been proven NOT valid for settlements involving taxpayer money.

Like the tragic Phoebe Prince case for instance.

Redacted portions below

 Click to enlarge/read

Ms. Gardner and her attorneys specifically wanted this agreement to go public, but now I hear they're complaining about too much transparency via these public documents disclosures.

Could it be they expected a far different reaction from the general public when the terms of the agreement first became public?

You would think a prestigious legal firm would know taxpayers are never thrilled about financing large settlements like $180,000 -- especially when they take a one-third cut.

Of course it could have been far worse, as the original demand was for $500,000.  So at least the Schools got them down 64%.

And of course if that $500K figure attains mainstream circulation it kind of takes the legal dream team down a notch or two.

Simply put, the general public has a right to know how their money was spent.  And why.

Information is intimately connected to free speech:  The more of it the better.  If you don't like it, then redact me.


Anonymous said...

"Simply put" is rarely right. "The more information, the better", you say? No.

The more ethical, responsible, careful journalism, that respects people, that recognizes that there are boundaries that protect personal privacy, that attempts to understand as clearly as possible what is going on, before it runs, the more of THAT, the better.

Raw, unfiltered, uninterpreted information simply runs roughshod. And there are actually things that the public does not have a right to know.

It is NOT simply put.

Rich Morse

Larry Kelley said...

With all due respect, I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

If someone hasn't been sued successfully for libel, does that mean he has not committed libel in the past? Of course not, it just means the victim of the libel didn't have time or resources to pursue the matter.

Larry Kelley said...

Well I've had about 100 people who had the time to threaten a libel lawsuit, but none of them, apparently, had the resources to persue the matter.

Nina Koch said...

Good point, Rich.

Larry Kelley said...


Anonymous said...

It seems that the Admin messed up in sending Larry documents that were not properly secured. Shouldn't they know the procedures to protect documents? Am I missing something?

Larry Kelley said...


Ten years ago virtually all public documents were hard copy, so it was pretty easy to redact and know it would stay redacted.

What really interests me is do you or the x-prosecutor or the teacher who just commented really see anything wrong with the 4 redacted items I published?

If so, why?

Walter Graff said...

In the old days news organizations saw opportunities to peel back the lid and expose what they could. Of course there were ethical lines but if it was in the public interest it was fodder for good reporting, exposed the ills of government and society and people actually won prestigious awards for doing so. Thanks to the left wing radical boomers of the 1960s we've created a society of people who are unwilling to engage in productive, open, mutually critical conversations with people they disagree with under the 'moral protection' of a title of liberalism and social justice. In reality it's just bullying.

Today there is a 'right' way to do things, 'right' way to think, and a 'right' way to go about business. Unfortunately to view everything through a particular theoretical viewpoint (eg feminist, Marxist, post-colonialist, etc.) we have created an intellectual limiting exercise that works only in a vacuum. The world is more than one viewpoint. The ostracization of those who hold alternate viewpoints is not any way conducive to social progress. No where is that vacuum more evident than in Amherst.

Sadly in this day and age people are no longer free to hear all sides of an issue and society no longer protects open dialogue- it’s become and an environment that allows one loud group to sabotage discussions and steamroll everyone else with their own moral agenda and sensitivities. Our unwillingness to consider the views of others has lead to the great divide in this country. Chasm is a word that comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

If Maria and Co. are lawfully bound to redact specific details then they must also be lawfully bound to have in place and execute proper SOP for permanent redaction. That responsibility falls squarely on them with legal channels and repercussions to deal with situations like this.

We all know Gardner's motive for including public release as a condition of the settlement. However Maria's reasoning in that the information would "generate great negative attention" is what should be truly concerning to everyone.

As we all know, this is nothing new with team Maria and even if legal in all respects the culture of deceit and frosted windows must stop. How can tax payers vote in good conscience (the only way they can participate in change) when they don't know what their votes are actually allowing to happen?

I agree with Larry, the amounts and reasoning for all expenditures of tax revenue should be clearly itemized and made available in real-time to all taxpayers. With proper development and implementation of law guided redaction SOP there is no reason this can't be done while also protecting the sensitive information of those involved.

Open Government to the MAX! Far from it unfortunately.

Dr. Ed said...

The more ethical, responsible, careful journalism, that respects people, that recognizes that there are boundaries that protect personal privacy, that attempts to understand as clearly as possible what is going on, before it runs, the more of THAT, the better.

And then who guards the guardians? Plato never answered that, nor has anyone else.
Likewise, exactly why does a journalist have to understand what is going on before reporting that it is? That's sorta like saying that you can't report that a house is on fire without first learning what started the fire.

Raw, unfiltered, uninterpreted information simply runs roughshod.

How very Orwellian.

What you are essentially saying is that I have no right to reach my own conclusions nor to have access to the information necessary for me to do so. Instead, I am only to be permitted to think that which you believe I should be permitted to think, and my access to information should be restricted so as to only permit me to think what you believe I should. How very fascist of you....

And there are actually things that the public does not have a right to know.

Then a journalist doesn't have the right to know them in the first place because the only right a journalist has to know anything is the right that any member of the public has to know it. There is no such thing as "journalist information", it's called "public information" -- expenditures from the public treasury and the justification for the same is inherently public information.

Conversely, freedom of the press and freedom of speech are unrestricted, universal rights that everyone has, not just certain someones.

Imagine how different history would be had coverage of the Vietnam War been restricted to that which General William Westmoreland thought that the public should know.

Take the two most iconic photographs from that war -- a picture of a just-discharged handgun held to a man's head with his brains visibly going downrange, and a picture of a naked visibly terrified little girl running toward the camera with clouds of smoke in the background. Raw, visceral images that would cause a movie to have an "R" rating and (theoretically) be restricted to adult viewing -- but this was "real life" and not fantasy. A journalist actually saw both of those things happen, and he let everyone else see what he had -- he gave them the facts and let them reach their own conclusions.

Was this wrong? To me, this is history -- but for those of you old enough to remember it in real time, was it right or wrong to publish those photos?

And yes, the context wasn't quite what it appeared to be -- the guy being shot by the Saigon Police Chief was VC and had just been caught killing people, and the soldiers nonchalantly smoking while the screaming naked girl ran by them were actually ARVN and not US Army soldiers, and I doubt she'd been able to run after actually been in the strike zone of Napalm because (I am told) it consumes all the Oxygen in the immediate area, thus leaving none to sustain human life -- and I always found the facial expression of the little boy more troubling.

the one of a prisoner being executed and the one of the naked little girl fleeing a Napalm strike. A journalist saw both of those things happen -- raw information without any context, let alone interpertation, but (before Photoshop) clearly accurate.

Dr. Ed said...

Walter -- Sometime back in the 1950's or early 1960's, then US Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) told one of her constituents that "if people really knew what was going on in Washington, there'd be a revolution." Lyndon Johnson was crude, amongst other things, he routinely urinated in parking lots. LBJ was also so crooked that he made Nixon look honest. Jack Kennedy slept with so many women that he made Bill Clinton look chaste -- JFK was also taking some heavy-duty pain pills that we weren't told about at the time, and reportedly was also dying of something, something that arguably would have killed him inside of 4-5 years if he hadn't been shot.

The all-male cadre of reporters neglected to mention the way that women -- young women hired as office assistants and such -- were routinely treated down there. For that matter, Joe McCarthy was drunk when he did the stuff that made him infamous -- he was considered "a drunk" in an era when most of the people down there would be considered alcoholics today. ETOH would kill him a year or two later, I forget exactly how.

And then there was FDR's physical disability which was carefully not reported to the public. That would not happen today...

Dr. Ed said...

Larry, I suggest you file a pro-forma appeal of the redaction.

In this particular case, due to their stupidity (tell me that they didn't just highlight it in black within Word...), you can show exactly what it is that they redacted and you are asking for a ruling that they did not have the right to redact what they did.

There is no plausible "maybe they had a reason" because you know exactly what the words are, and the fact that something may be embarrassing to an administrator is NOT grounds to redact it! Furthermore, it establishes the need for a precedent as to what they can not redact lest you be challenging EVERY future redaction.

Anonymous said...

The most damning evidence in the emails is the fact that Vira "Open Meeting Laws" Douangmany had sent an email to the whole School Committee, about a SC issue. Do as I say, not as I do.

Oh...also damning is the fact that the superintendent's letter of recommendation for the former teacher was legally negotiated--therefore it's worthless.

Anonymous said...

In addition to a legally negotiated letter of recommendation, her making the whole thing public a requirement of the settlement won't likely bode well for her. Right or wrong many future employers will do what they can within their legal right to not hire her for fear of a repeat on their dime. Confidentiality or lack of it can be good and bad in many instances.

Walter Graff said...

Ed, money, power and politics has not changed. There is so much that is kept from the bread and circus, nothing has changed. Sadly what has changed is that everyone is put into a group and people aren't allowed to speak their minds without bullying. I was one of the first to call out the superintendent and was attacked in the worst way. But I stiod by my words then and do now, she has further erided the system like a flash flood on a mountian. Now thankfully most of the bread and circus sees the truth too. But don't expect any change. That's why we live in a republic. 'We' are too stupid to make important decisions. That is up to the rich fools we put in office who vote based on what is in their best personal interest under the guise of elected representation. And it's the reason why less than double digits gets involved in anything regarding voting. The founding fathers were smart or lucky in the system they created as we do everything but oppress the masses. That is the only way you'll see revolution around the world. You won't see it here as we are given enough breadcrumbs to live and not enough suppression to cause revolt.

Anonymous said...

All those black crossings out reminds one of President Nixon staying up late with a Magic Marker in the White House attempting to manage the Watergate mess. And look what happened to Him.