The News Tribune has won two court battles in the past two weeks in our efforts to open public documents that others wanted kept secret.
In both cases, the cities that held the documents at first agreed they should be made public, but wound up fighting the TNT’s pursuit of disclosure. In both cases, the courts found against them.
The first case involved contracts between the Click cable TV service operated by Tacoma Public Utilities and the Seattle broadcasters whose channels air on Click.
In 2013, contract negotiations between Click and Fisher Communications broke down so badly that Fisher took its KOMO-TV Channel 4 off the air. Click network manager Tenzin Gyaltsen howled that Fisher was “squeezing a small cable company by raising rates more than 200 percent in two years.”
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The two parties finally agreed on a retransmission price, but Gyaltsen said Click was entering the agreement “under protest.”
The TNT asked to see the contracts between Click and each of the broadcasters so we could compare retransmission fees.
The City Attorney’s Office determined the contracts were subject to disclosure. But before releasing them, Click notified the broadcasters, who raced into court to stop their release.
That’s when the city of Tacoma climbed over the proverbial open records fence, or at least perched squarely atop it.
In a court filing, Gyaltsen himself argued against disclosure, saying release of the fee information would hurt Click’s position in future negotiations.
When we all got into the courtroom, on one side — the side pressing for release of the contracts — stood the lone lawyer for The News Tribune.
On the other side stood a handful of lawyers representing five broadcasters. Also on their side stood the man representing Click who took his turn behind the others pleading with the judge to keep the contracts secret.
The state Court of Appeals finally ruled last month that the cable contracts should be made public. It didn’t sanction Click for withholding the documents. But make no mistake, this was not a city agency fighting for disclosure.
The second case involves the story in today’s paper about Fife corrections officer Frank Carrico.
In July, we asked the city of Fife for Carrico’s personnel records, including the Kent Police Department’s investigation into his alleged misconduct.
Again, the city agreed this was a public document. Before releasing it, the city notified Carrico, who sneaked into court and got a judge to stop Fife temporarily from releasing the investigation.
The TNT fought the withholding and won. Carrico appealed the decision. The court told Fife not to release the investigation pending the appeal.
In the months that followed, the TNT also requested the Carrico investigation from the city of Kent, which was under no court order to withhold it. Kent produced the document almost immediately, without notifying Carrico.
State rules say an agency should notify people named in documents only if there’s a question about their release. Otherwise, notification causes undue delay.
Kent responded differently than Fife, apparently seeing no reason to delay. Kent also released the investigation without blacking out names of those who testified, unlike Fife.
The two responses by these cities to the same public records request was striking.
Fife, however, did not appreciate those differences.
The city went back to court, declaring that the TNT was out of line for even asking Kent for the investigation, and that Kent was out of line for releasing it, particularly with the witnesses named.
The court should strike the witness names from the record, Fife said. It should sanction the TNT with fees “appropriate to convey the egregiousness of this behavior,” and should stop the TNT from publishing the names Fife redacted.
That last request asking the court to tell the TNT what it could or could not publish — also known as prior restraint of free speech — is forbidden by both the Washington and the United States constitutions.
(Practically speaking, the TNT didn’t intend to name the witnesses in our story, in part because they were alleged victims of sexual harassment.)
The state Court of Appeals quickly dismissed the city’s requests.
The TNT had every right to ask Kent for the investigation, the court ruled Wednesday. And the city of Kent appropriately granted the request, largely unredacted and without notifying Carrico.
The court denied Fife’s request for sanctions or for removing names from the record.
The final sentence of the court ruling speaks to its respect for The News Tribune’s constitutional right to publish freely:
“And this court lacks the authority to order the Tacoma News (sic) to refrain from publishing those identities pending this appeal.”