Publisher Wins Records Access Appeal

In a significant victory for journalists and public records access, a state appeals court has ruled a small-town California newspaper does not have to pay legal fees to the school board he sued for records.

The First District Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday the Public Records Act suit by Tim Crews, publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Glenn County, was not frivolous and thus he was not liable for $56,000 in legal fees.

First Amendment advocates, including Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, have weighed in to support Crews, arguing that fear of being ordered to pay legal fees would chill publications from requests for records.

Crews, 69, launched the 3,000-circulation paper in 1990 for the agricultural community in Glenn County.  In 2009, he sought emails of the 1,700-student Willows Unified School District superintendent Steve Olmos to determine if he had used public resources for improper purposes, including a recall campaign for the Glenn County Superintendent of Schools.

The district agree to convert 60,000 emails to PDF documents but withheld 3,200 pages claiming they were exempt from disclosure.

Crews filed a Public Records Act (PRA) lawsuit after the district agreed to turn over materials, but before he began receiving them.

His lawsuit was eventually dismissed as frivolous and he was ordered to pay the district’s legal costs, roughly $56,000.

The appeal court reversed, finding Crew’s lawsuit may have been without merit but it was not frivolous.

After the district’s rolling production of documents, Crews relied on his PRA petition to challenge the district’s withholding of documents it claimed to be exempt and to gain district compliance to produce emails in a reasonable time.

He did not succeed in securing release of withheld documents, but his case did cause the trial judge to examine documents in a confidential review.

“Thus, while Crews was unsuccessful in obtaining withheld documents or e-mails in native format, his PRA petition was not frivolous,” wrote Justice Andrea Hoch.

In addition Hoch ordered, not only did Crews not owe the district any money, but he also should recover his costs for the appeal.

Crews was represented on appeal by Karl Olson of Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski.

Justices Cole Blease and Kathleen Butz joined in the opinion.

Case: Crews v. Willows USD, No. C066633

Photo source:  Editor & Publisher