McGeachin’s office refuses to release public comments on ‘indoctrination’ task force
The Idaho Capital Sun first requested the records six weeks ago.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s office on Thursday sent the Idaho Capital Sun 238 pages of public records from Idahoans, sought by her to inform her education task force.
But most of it was covered in black boxes with the word “REDACTED.”
The delivery followed six weeks of back-and-forth with the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff. And by the end of the day Friday, McGeachin had taken to social media, accusing the Sun of trying to get personal information about people who responded to her appeal for stories of indoctrination in schools.
“Not only are they requesting the comments, but they are also demanding the names and email addresses of those who made the comments,” she wrote in a Facebook post on her official lieutenant governor page. “We have been making an effort to comply with their requests in a manner that is respectful of Idahoans and their personal information, but they are insistent that we give them YOUR personal information. I believe this would violate your rights and I am doing everything I can to protect your information.”
What is the ‘indoctrination’ task force?
The lieutenant governor has assembled a task force to review claims of indoctrination in Idaho’s public schools. That task force met for the first time May 27, taking no public comment.
McGeachin announced the task force April 8, saying it would “protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”
“As I have traveled around the state and spoken with constituents and parents, it has become clear to me that this is one of the most significant threats facing our society today,” she said in the announcement. “We must find where these insidious theories and philosophies are lurking and excise them from our education system. … Idahoans are increasingly frustrated by the apparent lack of awareness and leadership coming from the state on these issues.”
McGeachin on April 21 announced on her website that she was seeking comments from the public regarding what Idaho schools teach students. She solicited the comments via Google Form.
Reporter requests the comments Idahoans submitted to McGeachin’s office
That day, the Idaho Capital Sun requested a copy of the public records created by that form — a public record that is maintained by the lieutenant governor’s office as a spreadsheet.
The Sun requested “a copy of the Google Sheet data from the Lt. Gov.’s Education Task Force Feedback Form, as the record exists at the time this public record request is processed. Please provide the data in its raw spreadsheet format.”
McGeachin’s Chief of Staff Jordan Watters responded to the request on May 4, saying the office had received about 3,600 comments. He provided a general breakdown of some of the data — the level of education to which comments applied (e.g. 25.1% applied to high school) and the position of the person submitting comments (e.g. 31.4% chose “concerned citizen”).
But Watters said the lieutenant governor’s office would redact names, email addresses and “personally identifying information” contained in the written comments submitted by the public. He estimated $560 in costs to redact the information, which the Idaho Capital Sun would have to pay to receive the incomplete records.
The Sun immediately responded, asking for the legal justification to redact information.
Watters responded 16 days later, saying: “Idaho code section 74-109(3) exempts from disclosure ‘personal identifying information relating to a private citizen contained in a writing to or from a member of the Idaho Legislature,’ The Education Task Force is co-chaired by Rep. Priscilla Giddings, who is a member of the Idaho Legislature. As Rep. Giddings has access to the information submitted through the feedback form, personally identifying information submitted through that form qualifies as ‘a writing to a member of the Idaho legislature,’ and is thus exempt from disclosure.”
Public comments are public records in Idaho, with few exceptions
The Sun and other media outlets routinely request and receive public comments. For example, the Sun in April requested copies of comments submitted to Gov. Brad Little regarding a bill on voter initiatives. The governor’s office provided the public records — days earlier than the deadline to do so in Idaho’s public records law.
When the lieutenant governor’s office refused to provide records, the Sun immediately reached out to the Idaho Press Club’s First Amendment Committee.
Stoel Rives attorney Wendy Olson sent the lieutenant governor’s office a letter on behalf of the Press Club and Sun reporter Audrey Dutton, saying that exemption did not apply and demanding the office send the unredacted records to Dutton by May 27 — the day of the task force’s first meeting.
Instead of providing the records, Watters sent an email. “We are currently working with the (Attorney General’s) office and should have a more substantive response for you soon,” he wrote.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office acts as the primary law firm for the state. It has deputy attorneys general who work with state offices to provide legal counsel. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden also publishes a manual that describes Idaho’s public records laws, exemptions and the public’s recourse when those laws aren’t followed.
The next email came June 2.
“Our office can provide you with a copy of our existing spreadsheet which includes the raw data that you requested,” Watters wrote. “However, our spreadsheet contains additional information, such as narratives and contact information that appear to be outside the scope of your request. If you believe this additional information is within the scope of your original request, please let us know and we will provide you with any information not otherwise exempt from public disclosure.”
The Sun thanked him in advance for providing the full public record as requested.
But the next day, he sent over a file with names, contact information and the entirety of the public comments blacked out.
The lieutenant governor’s office did not include a citation to the Idaho law under which it made the redactions, as required by Idaho’s public records law.
“The written denial for all or part of a request for information must state the statutory authority for the denial, and include a clear statement of the right to appeal and the time for doing so,” according to the Idaho Attorney General’s Public Records Law Manual. “In addition, it is also required that the public agency state ‘that the attorney for the public agency … has reviewed the request or shall state that the public agency or independent public body corporate and politic has had an opportunity to consult with an attorney regarding the request for examination or copying of a record and has chosen not to do so.’”
A lawsuit is the only recourse Idaho’s public records law gives the public and the media if they believe a government entity has wrongfully denied access to public records.
The opinion of the attorney general’s office is that “the only legitimate reason for the agency not to consult with an attorney is that the exemption from disclosure is clear,” the manual says. “If that is the case, the letter of denial should so state. Above all, if there is any doubt about whether the information is exempt from disclosure, it is imperative that the public agency seek legal advice.”
Redactions are a partial denial of a public record request. But McGeachin’s office did not include any of the above statements in its response.
Watters on Friday afternoon said he would have to start over on the Sun’s request, saying the public comments were not in the scope of the Sun’s initial request for the full spreadsheet.
Meanwhile, McGeachin had posted to Facebook, questioning the Sun’s motives for seeking a copy of public comments that will be used to inform a task force on public education:
“Why does the media want YOUR personal information? Do they plan to release it and encourage employers and government agencies to retaliate against Idahoans who have expressed concerns about Idaho’s education system?” she wrote. “I believe that releasing this information would have a chilling effect on YOUR right to communicate your concerns to elected officials in Idaho. I remain committed to taking whatever legal actions are necessary to protect your personal information from being exposed by the media.”