Broward County School Board Gets Hit With Anti-SLAPP Suit After Trying To Punish Paper For Exposing Its Redaction Failure

from the could-be-a-costly-unforced-error dept

Last week, the Broward County School Board went after a Florida newspaper, claiming it should be held in contempt of court for publishing information the school district didn't properly redact. The Sun Sentinel obtained a copy of the Parkland school shooter's educational records as the result of a public records suit. Certain information was redacted -- or at least was supposed to be -- to comply with state and federal privacy laws.

What was delivered to the Sun Sentinel by the district had black redaction bars covering two-thirds of the document. Unfortunately, the redactions were merely cosmetic. Anyone with a copy of the PDF could select the "redacted" text in the PDF and paste it into a text editor to see what was supposed to have been withheld. The school board screwed up, making it possibly liable for privacy law violations, but it went to court claiming it was all the Sun Sentinel's fault anyone's privacy got violated.

The Sun Sentinel has now responded -- both with an editorial middle finger and a filing in court. (h/t Brittany Wallman) If everything goes the Sun Sentinel's way, not only will it not face contempt charges (there's been no ruling on the motion, so it appears the judge doesn't believe closing barn doors post-livestock exodus qualifies as an emergency), but might collect some cash from the school district for trying to silence the paper.

From the motion [PDF]:

In a rush to deflect from its own negligence in publicly disclosing the CEN (Collaborative Educational Network) report at issue in a wholly unsecured format, the School Board now seeks to have this Court find the Sun Sentinel in contempt for exercising their First Amendment rights to truthfully report on a matter of the highest public concern: the exact nature of the special educational services the School District provided (or notably failed to provide) to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (“MSD”) shooter Nikolas Cruz—who now stands charged with multiple counts of capital murder. On their face, neither the civil court’s operative July 26, 2018 order (the “Civil Order”)—requiring the School District to disclose a redacted version of the CEN report—nor the criminal court’s August 3, 2018 order (the “Criminal Order”) in any way limited the Sun Sentinel’s ability to publish the report’s contents. Indeed, to have done so would have constituted an unconstitutional prior restraint.

By posting an improperly redacted version of the CEN report to its website for public download, the School District itself may have failed to comply with the court’s orders. In any event, there is no dispute that the Sun Sentinel lawfully obtained the report from the School District’s website and the information sought to be shielded by the redactions. Under such circumstances the law is clear: a First Amendment right to publish firmly attaches and no contempt proceeding may lie.

The motion points out the court never restricted what the paper could publish. Any court-ordered redactions were the responsibility of the school district, which was being sued for refusing to release the report at all. The in camera review conducted determined what could and couldn't be redacted by the school board. It had nothing to do with the Sun Sentinel, which was only the recipient of a document ordered to be produced. The paper acquired the document lawfully -- as did anyone else who downloaded the version with the faulty redaction. It was under no legal obligation to withhold information the school board meant to withhold, but didn't.

Even though the school district claims it handled everything correctly in regards to the Parkland school shooter, the Sun Sentinel points out in its editorial there are a handful of details that show school administrators mishandled situations involving a volatile student.

School officials didn’t properly advise Cruz of his legal options when he was faced with removal from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School his junior year, leading him to give up special education services.

When Cruz failed to file the required written rejection of special education services, school officials nudged him, writing it up for him to sign.

The district “did not follow through” on Cruz’s subsequent request to return to the therapeutic environment of Cross Creek School for special education students.

The contempt motion looks like nothing more than a punitive move by the school board to punish a news outlet for exposing its mistakes to the world. If this anti-SLAPP motion secures a ruling in favor of the paper, the board's attempt to punish the news outlet for publishing lawfully-obtained documents will put taxpayers on the hook for the paper's legal fees.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Broward, 14 Aug 2018 @ 5:36am

    Extra! Extra! School Board SLAPPed by newspaper

    Read all about it in today's Sun Sentinel!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Hero, 14 Aug 2018 @ 5:40am

    SunSentinal: "We are committed to digging into all aspects of this tragedy and the issues it raises for our community. We believe that a well informed public will find solutions."

    Broward County School Board: We are committed to providing a safe and educational environment for students, except in cases where we fail to do that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 5:49am

    There is a lesson to be learned here

    If anything can be learned from this redaction failure it is that software makers need to be more careful in the design of their user interface.

    A software feature that allows you to draw black bars over text while leaving the text intact should be clearly labeled as Redaction Tool.

    That will enable the world to more fully benefit from redacted documents.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Hero, 14 Aug 2018 @ 6:21am

      Re: There is a lesson to be learned here

      > A software feature that allows you to draw black bars over text while leaving the text intact should be clearly labeled as Redaction Tool.

      Do you mean it should NOT be called Redaction Tool? The whole point of this article is that they drew black bars over text and left the text intact, i.e., they failed to redact it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2018 @ 6:42am

        Re: Re: There is a lesson to be learned here

        Just think how much more transparent the governments would be with DannyB,s proposal; society would benefit greatly.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Thad (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 8:20am

        Re: Re: There is a lesson to be learned here

        Do you mean it should NOT be called Redaction Tool?

        I don't think so; read that last sentence again.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Broward of the County, 14 Aug 2018 @ 2:59pm

          Re: Re: Re: There is a lesson to be learned here

          "I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords"

          Exactly, Thad. Did Danny B actually need to use the sarcasm/irony tag?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Miles (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 7:49am

    There must be redaction software out there

    Somebody must have written an add-on to redact a document. Just like you can boldface or underline a selection of text, pick redact and it creates a black box AND changes the underlying text to say all x's.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 8:23am

      Re: There must be redaction software out there

      In my experience, trying to highlight text in a PDF generally works very poorly. I wouldn't trust a graphical frontend to accurately detect which characters were covered.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JoeCool (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 8:33am

        Re: Re: There must be redaction software out there

        Not to mention, NOTHING shows giving the middle finger to the public like printing it out, using a permanent black marker, taking pictures of the pages (out of focus and rotated slightly), converting them back to PDF, then mailing them on an encrypted CD without the password.
        ;)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      carlb, 14 Aug 2018 @ 8:25am

      Re: There must be redaction software out there

      I've got a pirated copy of ROT26 if you want it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2018 @ 8:40am

        Re: Re: There must be redaction software out there

        Wow, that system is so strong that you cannot tell that the message is encrypted, because it looks like a real message.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 9:47am

      Re: There must be redaction software out there

      Acrobat Pro has a redaction tool. Draw a box and It flattens the PDF after use, destroying the underlying information. The information is no longer stored. No need to modify the underlying text, the text doesn't exist anymore.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 10:22am

    One does wonder how many times we've never learned a shooters motivations b/c we're protecting "their" privacy by not releasing the documents that show a long history of the board failing to follow their own policy or state & federal law because its easier to just pass the buck to society to deal with.

    They screwed this kid repeatedly, didn't do much of what his needs & the law required and they really really don't want people to see how their actions contributed to an isolated child becoming more isolated & more despondent & angry. Someone might try to lay some blame at their feet for that happened... while he pulled the trigger everytime they failed him they put another bullet in the clip.

    Isn't it neat how they can hide their actions behind a cloak of we never knew nothing...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      John Thacker, 16 Aug 2018 @ 1:17pm

      Yep

      Yes, the frustrating thing is that a lot of what was redacted seems excessive, and not really necessary for the shooter's privacy, more trying to keep the school board from looking bad. It's a pretty common problem when the agency itself gets to decide what needs to be redacted. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes and all that.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2018 @ 12:19pm

    Isn't copy and paste a hacking tool? Can't this "sun-sentinel" be charged as hackers?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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