School Board Demands Journalists Be Punished For Reporting On The School Board's Redaction Failure

from the not-the-way-that-works-(also-not-the-way-redaction-works) dept

A redaction failure by a public entity has led to a request for contempt charges to be brought against a Florida newspaper and two of its reporters. The Sun Sentinel obtained a copy of the Broward County School Board’s report on the Parkland shooter after a successful public records request lawsuit. The report was heavily redacted… or at least, it was supposed to be. But the school board screwed this task up.

After a judge’s order, the school district publicly released the report Friday with nearly two-thirds of its content blacked out to protect 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz’s privacy rights. But the district used a method that failed: Anyone could copy and paste the blacked-out report into a Word document to make all the text visible.

Sun Sentinel reporters Brittany Wallman and Paula McMahon, acting on a Facebook tip from a reader at 7:30 p.m., discovered on deadline the concealed text could be viewed. The reporters quickly rewrote the story reflecting the entire report, providing the first detailed account about the school shooter’s years in the school system, what the district knew about him and what mistakes were made.

The report [PDF] has been uploaded by the Sun Sentinel with the redaction performed correctly. But the faulty version was used to craft a long article about the shooter using details the court had determined could be withheld.

A petition [PDF] has been filed by the school board in an effort to shove this genie back into the bottle. The motion alleges the Sun Sentinel agreed to the redactions, which were put in place to conform with federal and state privacy laws covering education and medical records. Some of what was redacted detailed errors made by the school system when handling the shooter’s discipline and educational options.

What the school board is seeking is both impossible and preposterous. The report has already been read in full and an article produced showing what was redacted. Copies of the report containing the faulty redaction are likely still in circulation. The contempt order might cause the Sun Sentinel some pain, but the damage has already been done.

That’s the impossible side. The preposterous side is this: the Sun Sentinel published information it obtained lawfully. The report was delivered by the school board in accordance with the court’s order. If the school board screwed up the redaction (and it did!), it has no right to complain people accessed the content it meant to keep hidden. Even if the Sun Sentinel agreed to the redactions, that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to just sit there and pretend it can’t see the text the school board failed to fully redact.

Whatever damage has been done was inflicted by the school board for failing to properly redact the report it was ordered to hand over to the Sun Sentinel as the result of public records request lawsuit. The recipient has no obligation to only report on unredacted portions of the report if it has access to the entirety of the document due to human error. The judge may not be happy the Sun Sentinel did this, but I can’t see how the court’s going to find this is the reporters’ fault, rather than the school board’s.

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Comments on “School Board Demands Journalists Be Punished For Reporting On The School Board's Redaction Failure”

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40 Comments
Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

First God made idiots. That was for practice.

It is hard to see how the school board gets very far in this one. I think the U.S. Supremes decided Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, back in 1989.

Same fact pattern, newspaper obtained and published information that the govt entity thought they should not have. Exception taken. In Florida Star, the trial court found newspaper liable, as did the DCA, but the Supremes reversed.

Since the newspaper obtained the information lawfully, if through unsurprising govt screw-up, they get to publish it. Even if it had not been obtained lawfully, it is not clear that punishment would be permitted. See NY Times v. U.S., 403 U.S. 713, commonly known as the “Pentagon Papers” case.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

When I first heard about this on teh Twitters, I thought the board should be fired & the lawyer who filed this piece of shit sued to get back any money spent filing it.
Someone pointed out that the entire board wasn’t aware of it so maybe they weren’t all bad… I pointed out their complete failure to follow the law & policies towards the shooter. They screwed him over several times & made the situation much worse.

The genie is out of the bottle, because your staff or those in your employee are incompetent. Trying to claim that a ruling of a court applies to a party that isn’t part of the case, that should spawn an ethics review of the lawyer. There is offering a strong defense, pounding on the law, the table, etc… but outright ignoring the simple fact the court had never told the paper what they could or couldn’t do (cause like thats constitutional law, bedrock of nation, etc.) shows someone who isn’t doing their job correctly to just get paid.

David says:

Re: Re:

Pfffft. The reporters “hacked” the redacted document by using it in a non-intended manner. We had wagonloads of hacking charges of publicly accessible websites boiling down to utter stupidity of the operators.

Copy and paste of clear text from “blackened” passages certainly reaches a similar level of “unauthorized access”.

It’s like, say, scanning off the fingerprints from a contract you legally received and using them to open doors on a car or other area that should not be accessible.

I mean, it’s not like that at all, but having seen what courts make of the Internet, I don’t see this as open-and-shut as everyone else regarding the outcome of the court lottery.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Florida official: “YOU HACKED US! YOU SHOULD GO TO JAIL “

Journalist: “Wha..how? Why?”

F: “I specifically said in my email to only read the first page. You clearly scrolled to the second page. YOU HACKED THE DOCUMENT!”

J: “But it was not redacted in any way. Why did you just not include the second page? “

F: [points finger] “HAHA! So you admit you read the page! OFFICER ARREST THIS PERSON!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

how monumentally stupid

In the given example it’s clearly malice, not stupidity. The "idiot" in question is clearly trying to cover up their laziness by shifting blame on to the victim using the incompetence / apathy of the courts. That’s not "stupid" at all, it’s actually rather cunning. Especially if the powers that be will gladly go along with it.

tom (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Sadly, if the school board lawyer had filed a DMCA violation notice on the ‘breaking’ of the ‘protection’ on the document that blacked out the redacted text, it might fly. It seems obvious that the document was delivered in digital form with a form of digital protection on the redacted bits. Doing the copy/paste to pull out the text could well count as ‘breaking’ the digital protection on the document allowing use not intended by the creating entity, thus a violation of the DMCA.

Christopher L (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

‘Digital Protection’ would be a stretch. If the Word Document had been password protected, there would be a leg to stand on. This ‘protection’ is more akin to changing the font on the redacted bits to DingBats and then uploading the fully editable collaborative document.
The ‘protection’ would be analogous to taping a black strip of paper on one edge, then placing that easily lifted strip over the area to be redacted, followed by sending this document directly to the paper- rather than sending a copy of the paper with redact-o-tron strips in place, unable to be moved.
They created an Advent Calendar expecting it to be Fort Knox- their expectations were not well founded. Saying “You Peeked!” and acting butt-hurt is their response. Too little, too late seems to be a theme for this organization.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Doing the copy/paste to pull out the text could well count as ‘breaking’ the digital protection”

Bullshit. That is not protection, it is stupidity.
If one is not capable of redacting properly they should not be redacting.

Funny how the crook that did the swirly thing to his face was not afforded this sort of pretzel logic.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

So, David, any competent lawyer could cite the SCOTUS case from 1989 that dealt with these kinds of circumstances, and win this case. With things like the CFAA where there was little in the way of case law, and the presence of broad undefined language, the law is unclear and uncertain.

This area of the law is pretty well settled. The SCOTUS has stated that if they obtain the information lawfully, even if the judge did not intend its release, a paper can not be held liable for the release of that information.

Damien says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Copy and paste of clear text from “blackened” passages certainly reaches a similar level of “unauthorized access”.”

Text being blackened does not equal unauthorized. There is nothing that prohibits anyone from posting information found in a publicly released document. The document still contained the data on what was being “redacted” and thus the public document contains that information.

Something being redacted says NOTHING about who is or is not authorized to see that info, it is simply a method of hiding that information in a public release… if done correctly.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Given that “just overlay[ing] a new layer on top of the text with the black bars?” is exactly what black highlighting accomplishes, I would assume a redaction feature to be destructive, as that would be the only way to distinguish from the feature dan already stated didn’t work, while noting this feature did. I would assume flattening is the actual mechanism, as it seems the simplest fashion to resolve the concerns.

OGquaker says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Like hell

N O T H I N G ever is destroyed by Adobe, they’re playing games with us.
Five years ago i was receiving PDF scans from an Accountant of our Green Party donations, all less than half image of cash bills. In-accurate or untimely records reported to the FPPC have since assessed more than $8,000 in fines against me personally for such a $15 error.
Suddenly, when i was printing out her PDFs, my printer stopped and printed only a website address in the EU, describing that currency images were illegal. (not US currency in B&W partials in Los Angeles, FU Adobe)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No… do not go there. TD reported on some using this method, making it practically impossible to use the document because there was no search and no Copy-Paste. Although I seem to recall it being thousands of pages so there is a difference.
My point is that nobody wants it to be the norm with non-searchable pages.
A better idea: Just replace the redacted parts with 4 squares no matter how large the word is… That is just as effective and it would block attempts to get content based on length of words.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Well...

My point is that nobody wants it to be the norm with non-searchable pages.

That depends on how much the one providing the documents cares to live up to the spirit of the law rather than just the letter. If they want to make it as difficult as possible to dissuade others from asking for documents for example then an ‘unexpected side-effect’ like that would be highly desirable.

Damien says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Just replace the redacted parts with 4 squares no matter how large the word is..” LOL the reason it didnt work is because they forgot to remove the meta data in the filethat has a complete index of all the text. All they did was put black marks on top of the words, but the “transcript” of the file still contains all of the text.

lol, its not about how big or small the redacted black bar is…

Christenson says:

Re: Unfathomable.

Not just that…

Everyone in the room knows he needs more support…and they make that rejection, on the spur of the moment, binding, don’t bother to explain to someone just 18 and way less than ordinarily mature the implications? Maybe I’m asking for too high a standard, but with all that anger known coming and then flying around why the devil didn’t people sleep on it?

That sort of thing is sufficient to break sales contracts.

The whitewash of the total dysfunction as reported by the Sun-Sentinel is pretty obvious.

afn29129 David (profile) says:

Redaction fails, Redaction fails without a computer.

Redaction fails with a computer v. Redaction fails without a computer.

This is no different then where someone has attempted to use a sharpie marker the redact but the sharpie ink wasn’t black enough and all that was required to see the words underneath was to read the paper under a very bright light.

Redaction fails without a computer.
v.

Redaction fail with a computer and a PDF file.

Both are the fault of whoever tried to redact.

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