ELearning Inside by Cait Etherington
January 20, 2019
Over the past year, Florida Virtual School (FLVS), Florida’s statewide, public online secondary school, has dealt with a massive data breach, a series of ongoing disputes with former employees, and a series of allegations against the school’s former attorney. If the problems at FLVS’s have been slow to come to the surface and garnered little media attention outside Orlando where the school’s office is based, it may have something to do with how the school has negotiated access to public documents pertaining to its current disputes.
Orlando Sentinel on Defensive After Requesting Public Documents from FLVS
In an attempt to shed light on the ongoing disputes at FLVS, the Orlando Sentinel did what any news outlet would do under the same circumstances: They made requests for public documents concerning the controversy, so their reporters might examine FLSV’s actions and inform readers. Since FLSV is a state-run online school, the Orlando Sentinel naturally had a reasonable expectation that the documents would be released. Suffice to say, this is not what happened.
On January 8, the Orlando Sentinel published a letter by Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation about what happened after the Orlando Sentinel requested public documents from the FLVS:
“Rather than respond to the paper’s public record request, FLVS filed a civil lawsuit, called a declaratory judgment action, against the paper and its former lawyer. These types of lawsuits force not only newspapers, but also everyday citizens, into court to defend their constitutional right of access to public records. Not only do records requesters have to bear the expense of hiring an attorney, but the legal burden of proof is also arguably flipped from the agency to the person requesting records. And by the way, the agency uses taxpayer dollars to fight about the records request.”
Peterson’s letter also explains how things theoretically should work in such cases:
“How should it work? A citizen makes a public record request to a public agency. The agency responds, either producing the records or claiming that the requested records are exempt from public disclosure under a Florida statutory exemption permitting the agency to withhold all or a portion of the records. If the citizen disagrees with the agency’s assertion, she can file a civil lawsuit against the city council – or not. Ultimately, a judge would resolve any legal dispute.
“Civil actions, like the one filed by FLVS, put public record requesters – citizens and the media – in the position of having to defend cases rather than selectively litigate them. That’s simply wrong. FLVS should dismiss its lawsuit and provide the requested records or cite an exemption that authorizes FLVS to deny the paper’s request. And our legislature should again take up – and pass – legislation that prohibits agencies from filing declaratory judgment actions that haul requesters unwillingly into court.”
On December 19, the Orlando Sentinel launched a counter-suit against FLVS in attempt to access records pertaining to the departure of Frank Kruppenbacher, the school’s former attorney.