CLEVELAND- Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio announced that it would represent community activist Brian Bardwell, who was fined and warned by a court not to file too many lawsuits to enforce his public records requests. Mr. Bardwell asked for documents concerning Cuyahoga County’s Medical Mart project and subsequent discussions the county had with the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the release of the documents. The county denied part of Mr. Bardwell’s request and he filed a lawsuit challenging that decision. The 8th District Court of Appeals criticized Mr. Bardwell’s motives because he had filed prior public records cases and fined him for filing this lawsuit.
“One of the fundamental principles of our government is transparency. The public has a right to know the actions of government officials and disseminate that information to others. The court’s decision against Mr. Bardwell casts records requests as a nuisance for officials rather than a vital service they are obligated to perform,” said ACLU of Ohio Cooperating Attorney Brian Laliberte.
In the 8th District Court’s decision, the judges warned Mr. Bardwell that they may bar him from filing future public records cases to force officials to comply with requests.
“There is nothing in the Public Records Act limiting the number of requests or cases an individual may file, yet the court has decided to arbitrarily impose a limit. The court’s decision sends a clear message that if government watchdogs ‘rock the boat’ too much, they could face penalties. This could cripple the important work that community activists, news outlets, non-profits and research organizations perform when they investigate possible corruption or wrongdoing,” added Laliberte.
Mr. Bardwell is founder of a non-profit group called Citizens for Sunshine, which advocates for greater access to public records. Through his work with the organization, Mr. Bardwell has filed numerous requests for public records throughout northeast Ohio. When officials have failed to comply, he has filed lawsuits for the information. He has prevailed in or settled many of these lawsuits and obtained the public records.
The ACLU plans to appeal Mr. Bardwell’s case to the Ohio Supreme Court and has asked that he not be forced to pay the fine pending his appeal.
Laliberte concluded, “Without the public’s ability to hold our officials accountable, corruption may go unchecked. We must have unfettered access to all public records in order to educate the community about the often complex inner workings of the government. The Ohio Supreme Court must reject this obtrusive burden and continue to let the sun shine on government records.”
Update 10.29.10 The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to show it abused its discretion.
Read the Ohio Supreme Court ruling