Last week the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the Burlington Police Department could not charge a citizen for staff time dedicated to fulfilling a public record request.
The ruling resolves a years-old effort by a Burlington man (Reed Doyle) who says he witnessed a public incident of excessive force against a child by a city police officer in June 2017. He wanted the police to cue the video.
As is often the government custom, the police department first flatly refused his request. When he didn’t go away, they said he could inspect the video but it would cost him a few hundred bucks. That money would pay for the staff time necessary to redact the video, they said.
In a terrible ruling, a lower court agreed with BPD Chief Brandon Del Pozo.
Backed by the ACLU, Vermont Press Association, New England First Amendment Coalition, the Vermont Journalism Trust and Secretary of State Jim Condos, Doyle fought the police obstruction effort. They all argued that the examination of public records are the lifeblood of an open society.
The High Court agreed.
“Based on the plain language of the [Public Records Act], we hold that the BPD cannot charge for staff time spent in complying with requests to inspect public records,” Chief Justice Paul Rieber wrote for the majority.
The Public Records Act “represents a strong policy favoring access to public documents and records,” the High Court explains. “Given this legislative policy, we should ‘resolve any doubt in favor of disclosure.’”
Or, as Vermont journalism legend Mike Donoghue says, “When in doubt, hand it out.”
It’s a crying shame that more agents of government refuse to embrace that simple, yet wise, approach.