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Governing bodies exist to serve the public

Government agencies are suing individuals who seek public records, a sign that public access to government might be in jeopardy in some states.

The Associated Press reported that government bodies are turning the tables on citizens who seek records that might be embarrassing or sensitive.

“Instead of granting or denying their requests, a growing number of school districts, municipalities and state agencies have filed lawsuits against people making the requests — taxpayers, government watchdogs and journalists who must then pursue the records in court at their own expense,” AP reported.

The lawsuits generally ask judges to rule that the records being sought do not have to be released. They name those requesting the information as defendants but do not seek damages.

“You can lose even when you win,” said Mike Deshotels, an education watchdog who was sued by the Louisiana Department of Education after filing requests for school district enrollment data last year. “I’m stuck with my legal fees just for defending my right to try to get these records.”

It’s a new approach to denying — or at least delaying — public records requests and one that will likely become more popular.

It’s no secret that government bodies generally do not enjoy granting public records requests. But that information, aside from a handful of exceptions, is open and available to the public, according to state laws.

Using lawsuits to slow the release of public information is not only a disservice to the public, it’s just dishonest. The tactic stands in opposition to open records laws.

Open records laws provide the public — anyone, including you — with access to documents and information that shine a light on how government works. Government works best when it functions in full view of the public. Hiding information from the public only weakens the public’s trust in government and creates an environment where corruption can flourish.

All governments (federal, state and local) exist to serve the public. Governments that sue citizens who seek public information have obviously forgotten that.