The town of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina has filed a lawsuit against three Charleston, S.C.-based media outlets in the hopes of blocking them from receiving public documents that ought to be available under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
And yes, this litigiousness is related to the town’s recent decision to stonewall the press over an October 2018 incident at a local middle school that involved one of its council members.
According to the lawsuit, the three media outlets are allegedly engaging in “political intrigue” by targeting the council member in question, Kevin Cunnane.
“Despite the exemplary purpose behind FOIA – to promote transparency in local government – it is the town’s belief that the primary motivation behind this request is political intrigue at the expense of a minor child’s right to privacy,” the suit stated.
Here is a copy of the pleading …
Last week, Tony Bartelme of the Post and Courier reported that Cunnane was “rude” and “belligerent” to administrators at the government-run Thomas C. Cario middle school during a “disturbance” last October – at one point stating he would “go through the doors” of the facility if he was denied access.
Cunnane’s “rude” and “belligerent” actions were documented in a Mount Pleasant, S.C. police report – but the town has yet to make that document public. Apparently, its leaders received a letter from Charleston, S.C. attorney Jerry Theos stating that turning over any documents related to the incident would subject them to “civil liability.”
Cunnane told Bartelme that a follow-up investigation led by the town’s police department – which works for him, incidentally – cleared him in connection with the incident. However Cunnane declined to turn over a copy of that investigatory report to Bartelme (and the town has not released it, either).
The Post and Courier eventually received a copy of the original incident report from another source, but Cunnane’s name had been redacted from that document.
What happened here?
According to the town’s lawsuit, Cunnane’s child was “allegedly attacked by another student” at the school last fall.
“The parent of the victim, a council member, received a call from the child and immediately drove to the school, and demanded the police department document the attack in an incident report,” the complaint stated.
Ultimately, police did file a report – but it apparently focused at least to some extent on the behavior of Cunnane, who as our readers will recall appears to have some anger management issues.
Months later, the town “received several requests under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking a copy of a specific incident report by number, and as it related to a specifically named council member, and any and all email communication between council members and legal counsel for the town.”
According to the suit, all of this information is “exempt from disclosure” – and the town is seeking a judgment from the court which would keep the incident report “and any information related to its disclosure” under lock and key.
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Our view? The town has no case here …
It is certainly well within its rights to redact the name of the juvenile involved in the October incident, but beyond that we believe it has a clear and compelling legal obligation to produce whatever information has been requested by these three outlets.
Certainly these three outlets should exercise discretion in their treatment of the situation that led to Cunnane’s alleged outburst (i.e. the situation involving the minor child), but the councilman does not get to hide behind his offspring when it comes to suppressing unflattering information.
Or avoiding the consequences of any bad behavior he may have engaged in …
Furthermore, Cunnane has invited the release of this information by claiming the police department’s follow-up investigation cleared him of wrongdoing.
That may very well be the case, but how are reporters supposed to know that for sure if no documents are ever released?
Frankly, the Mount Pleasant police had no business investigating a matter like this. Once it became clear a sitting town councilman was involved in a matter of this kind, authority over any subsequent investigations should have immediately been handed over to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
Otherwise it is impossible to vouch for the independence of the inquiry …
More importantly, this lawsuit strikes us as an effort to flout FOIA – one we fully expect will be dismissed in short order.
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