Some people on the interwebs think I should be outraged at Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin because she refused to give out the names of Idahoans who had contacted her office for help fighting critical race theory in Idaho’s government schools. Actually, I’m quite proud of her. She did the right thing.
It’s the Idaho media who I feel bad for. When I was a reporter, it was embarrassing to see one’s name as part of a news story. Reporters were supposed to report the news, not make the news or be the subject of a story. Now, the names of reporters are tied permanently to their brazen attempt to have the lieutenant governor jailed for her handling of the public records law. They should never be able to claim impartiality and write about anything involving the lieutenant governor ever again, but we know they will anyway.
I have spent a lifetime advocating for government transparency. As a journalist and newspaper editor in the 1990s and 2000s, I fought and won many battles over the public’s access to government records.
Working for the government in 2005 and 2006, I pushed state agencies to be more open and transparent about their activities.
In 2010, the Idaho Freedom Foundation won a lawsuit against the city of Coeur d’Alene over its refusal to release the names and salaries of taxpayer-paid employees.
In 2013, IFF forced a reluctant Legislature to create an online, permanent multimedia archive of floor sessions and committee meetings of the House and Senate. Today, that archive is accessible to anyone anywhere around the world.
In 2015, the IFF worked with firefighters to change state law so that all meetings between government bodies and labor unions were opened to the public.
My record on government records and the necessity for openness is the best around.
Government agencies and employees routinely redact information that should be public, and this is a problem we encounter everyday. Quite often, Idahoans will find their public records requests greeted with ill-applied public records law exemptions, wait times that exceed the statutory maximum, excessive fees for documents, or claims that records you know exist don't exist. I’ve seen it all. People and organizations often have to sue to get the information they want from the government.
Newsrooms usually generate a lot of public records requests. As a result, deciding which records to pursue in court can be a challenge. Resources are limited. Lawsuits are expensive. But if the missing information is significant to the public’s understanding of government operations or decisions, there’s a good reason to sue. I have witnessed and been party to many cases in which the news organization decided the value of the information being received was not worth the fight.
In McGeachin's case, the Press Club sued over her decision to redact the names of private citizens who had made complaints about social justice indoctrination in our state's education system. There is little to no real journalistic value in recovering the names of the people who complained about critical race theory and leftism.
Protecting the names of people who contact government officials is also consistent with what Matt Davison, the publisher of the Idaho Press, told lawmakers last year. Testifying on a bill that would block all legislative communications from release under the public records law, Davison told lawmakers that he’d be happy with a public records law that redacted the names of people communicating with their legislators, while leaving the substance of the communication open to public scrutiny. The Idaho Press is the newspaper that employs Betsy Russell, the president of the Idaho Press Club.
It’s obvious that the media decided to challenge McGeachin because of her politics, not because of the content they expect to find under the blackened out cells on a spreadsheet. Reporters have made it clear that, evidence to the contrary, they’ll never report that the lieutenant governor and the Idaho Freedom Foundation are right about the existence of critical race theory and other leftist ideologies in classrooms from kindergarten to college.
McGeachin crossed them. She offended them, and they decided to make her pay for it. And then, when McGeachin decided to weigh her legal options before giving over the information ordered by the court, they decided to demand jail for the lieutenant governor, knowing that it would make really big headlines. After all, they’re the ones who determine what makes for big headlines.
“But Wayne, the law says the records are public!” someone is bound to yell. And that is true. But the state’s public records law is a giant piece of crap. It’s become another legislative vehicle to reward secrecy to the politically connected, both in government and the private sector. I’m grateful for an elected official who will go above and beyond to protect people who unknowingly fall into that trap.