Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Weekly papers in N.C. win appeals-court ruling preventing abuse of open-records exception

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has reversed part of a trial-court ruling that allowed local ofificals to keep two weekly newspapers from getting a document because it had been placed into a personnel file.

"Whether a document is part of a 'personnel file' ... depends upon the nature of the document and not upon where the document has been filed," the panel wrote in a unanimous decision. The case was brought by The News-Reporter of Whiteville, a twice-weekly paper, and the weekly Tabor-Loris Tribune against Columbus County officials who withheld a letter sought by the papers.

In September 2005, when the county Board of Commissioners was considering whether to renew a contract with its medical director, the emergency-services director sent the board a letter discussing his work with the medical director and recommending that a new one be hired. The county made no change, and denied the newspapers' request for a copy of the letter, arguing it was exempt from the open-records law because it was in a personnel file and dealt with the performance of a county employee, The Associated Press reports.

The appeals court wrote, "While portions of the letter are protected from disclosure, those portions can be redacted, and the remainder — falling within the Public Records Act — provided to plaintiffs." The court said making anything in a personnel file exempt from disclosure "could result in governments transforming a newspaper clipping that addressed a government employee's performance into a confidential record," AP reports. For the full story, via the First Amendment Center, click here.

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