How one agency redacts the public’s right to know

In the world where citizens fight for public records and public officials fight to withhold them, “redacted” is a fancy word for “Here’s what we won’t let you see.”

In the article below, Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt discusses the U.S. government’s battles against disclosure. Pruitt looks at the problem from a national perspective. In this space we illustrate the lengths to which one federal agency went to obstruct The News Tribune in an important local story.

News Tribune reporter Debbie Cafazzo, covering a complaint (so far unsubstantiated) about discrimination at Lincoln High School, asked the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Education Department for specific documents relating to the case.

Among the pages she got back were the three to the right.

The first specifies the alleged discriminatory acts. Or rather, it did – until someone at OCR zapped all the details before releasing the page to Cafazzo.

Sometimes a redaction is justified – to protect privacy, perhaps. But privacy concerns can be addressed by blacking out names or other identifying information. It’s rarely necessary to prevent the public from seeing everything.

When the blank spaces are this extensive, it’s not likely the agency was carefully pruning out just the sensitive details.

The other two pages? The OCR had asked Tacoma Public Schools to provide answers to 14 questions. Both the questions and answers have been expunged.

As it happens, Cafazzo had already received the federal Q&A from Tacoma Public Schools before OCR released these unhelpful pages.

Here are some of the questions the Office of Civil Rights decided the public had no right to see:

The big blank spots cover those and similar questions, as well as the district’s factual answers. All highly classified and necessary to withhold in the public interest, no doubt.