St. Augustine Record by Jake Martin
March 29, 2017
A judge has issued an order on several points of contention in a drawn-out dispute over public records requests between the St. Johns County School Board and a local correspondent for the website Photography is Not a Crime.
Jeff Gray, a father of three children attending county schools and self-proclaimed activist, says he’s on a mission to get public agencies and the private companies they do business with to get their rules and procedures in line with Florida’s public records laws.
He says the St. Johns County School District’s policy does not comply with statutory requirements, that it infringes on his right to access and obtain public records, and that he is, therefore, not required to follow the policy.
The school board claims Gray’s refusal to follow the policy is “antagonistic and disruptive to the lawful, orderly and safe operation” of district schools and offices, that the policy is in compliance with state law, and that Gray continually refuses to cooperate because his interests are more about making money via lawsuits and YouTube posts than actually obtaining the records he’s requested.
Judge Michael Traynor of the 7th Judicial Circuit Court on Monday ruled largely in favor of the school board in its civil lawsuit filed against Gray in December 2015. The case has seen multiple delays over the past year due to changes in representation for Gray, postponed proceedings and a changeover on the judge’s bench.
Traynor ruled the school board’s designation of named Community Relations Department staff to respond to public records requests is authorized by state statute and that a provision in the district’s policy permitting on-site custodians to refer public records requests to the department is “valid, enforceable, and permitted” by statute.
However, he also said he could not warrant declaratory and/or injunctive relief “at the instant stage” that would allow the district to require Gray to submit public records requests solely through the Community Relations Department, denying the school board’s motion for partial summary judgment in that respect.
As written in the district’s own protocol regarding public records requests: “Requests made or addressed to District schools or other offices may be processed by the on-site custodian. Alternatively, the on-site custodian may refer that request to designated CRD staff for response.”
Traynor said a “reasonably prudent person” who reads the protocol “may believe that his or her public records request could be adequately addressed by an on-site custodian” and that nothing in the language precludes Gray from first submitting his request to an on-site custodian.
The judge also ruled it is not a violation of the state’s Public Records Act for schools to require individuals entering public schools for the purpose of making public records requests to identify themselves and register as a condition of entering the school.
He also declared the district’s Acceptable Use Policy (prohibiting videotaping inside schools during the school day) as valid and enforceable, while also enjoining Gray from violating the policy.
“The Court finds no authority providing that Florida’s Public Records Act requires schools to provide unbridled access for individuals to enter school premises and surreptitiously videotape interactions with school employees,” Traynor wrote, adding federal law “overwhelmingly” holds that the general public does not have a constitutional right to access school property.
Traynor denied the school board’s request for injunctive relief enjoining Gray from “attempting to harass or intimidate” district staff or “disrupt or interfere” with district schools, offices or operations. He said granting such relief would be “premature” due to the existence of disputed material facts.
Traynor’s order came more than nine months after the school board filed its motion for partial summary judgment, when the case was still in the hands of Judge Howard Maltz, who took over for Traynor on the criminal bench in January.
Gray filed a complaint against the school board in October 2015 claiming non-compliance with public records law in the handling of an in-person request he made at the district’s Maintenance Department on Aug. 26 to inspect and photograph material safety data sheets kept there. He said he was not permitted to inspect or photograph the records he requested that day, which he considered an unlawful breach in protocol and of his right to access the documents.
The school board said Gray misdirected his request to a secretary it claimed had no responsibility for or authority over the requested records. Gray’s complaint also omitted mention that the Community Relations Department contacted him by email Aug. 28 offering to produce the records at the Maintenance Department and that Gray refused the offer.
By December of that year, Gray filed a notice of voluntary dismissal with prejudice of his case, calling it a “strategic move,” and his requests on school properties continued.
Gray claimed the school board’s case against him is a strategic lawsuit against public participation — or a SLAPP — intended to censor, intimidate or silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition, but, in April 2016, Maltz deemed the case reasonable.
The school board filed a motion the next month for an award of attorney’s fees against Gray by prevailing on the motion. According to backup documents, the school board’s counsel, David Delaney and Frank Upchurch III, expended 71.1 and 60.1 hours respectively in the defense of the SLAPP claim for a total of $23,573.09, as well as $85 in court fees.
Upchurch told The Record on Wednesday that the district will likely continue seeking attorney’s fees and pushing for an order allowing the district to require Gray to submit his requests directly (and solely) to the Community Relations Department, but that nothing has been decided as of yet. [READ MORE]