Our Voice: Consider criminal charges to keep abusers from threatening access to open records

January 28, 2014 

We find ourselves in a pickle.

A state law dear to our livelihood can also be detrimental when abused.

How to reconcile that conflict is an ongoing struggle.

Access to government records is at the core of the public's fundamental right to know how its money is being handled, to monitor whether people are being treated fairly and to hold government accountable. Public records are a vast resource for citizens and media to gather information and question government actions.

Every one of us has a right to the information, which can be requested with relative ease.

But there are those who seem to relish submitting overly broad requests just for the sake of making more work for governments with which they have a perceived beef.

Some records requests are deliberately crafted to be impossible to meet within required response timeframes.

That's not only wrong, but it also threatens to prompt the Legislature to weaken open records laws in ways that would weaken the public's ability to keep tabs on government.

Punitive use of the Public Records Act flies in the face of one of the core values of the law -- to keep government in check. Instead some folks create unreasonable records requests and workloads on government staffs, further draining public dollars all for their pleasure, not for a valid purpose.

We oppose any measure to restrict the public's right to access government records. Journalism and society would suffer if access were to be limited beyond the scope of the existing law.

Now you see the quandary.

How do we maintain unfettered public access to information and protect public agencies from abusive citizens looking to make government workloads untenable?

The answer, we're afraid, may be through the criminal justice system.

The punishment would have some teeth to it, which the criminal process could provide. It would take legislation to implement.

Each case is different. It would be up to a judge or jury to decide if a citizen had exceeded his or her rights to information by making overzealous or abusive public records requests of a jurisdiction out of spite.

We wouldn't envy that job. It is a balancing act. But there are some people -- including a few right here in our community -- who have crossed the line with their information requests.

They have learned to work the system, found its weak points and targeted their requests in ways that cause more harm than good.

What to do?

Suggesting anything that could jeopardize public access to their records is unthinkable. But we do have empathy for the entities victimized by abusers of the system. They need protection.

Our lawmakers need to find a way to strike a balance. A couple of successful criminal cases would go a long way toward curbing bad behavior while protecting access.

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