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Louisiana’s High Court Ruling a Victory for Public Records

The 4-3 decision ensures that the public is “guaranteed access to public records unless a law specifically and unequivocally provides otherwise.”

At a time when state lawmakers seem intent on weakening Louisiana's public-records laws, a recent ruling from the Louisiana Supreme Court should serve to shore them up.

The 4-3 decision, in a case where an animal-rights group sued LSU to compel the university to turn over a batch of animal lab records, shores up the public's right to view documents that aren't clearly exempted from release under state law.

The public is "guaranteed access to public records unless a law specifically and unequivocally provides otherwise," Chief Justice John L. Weimer wrote in a 28-page opinion last week. He was joined by Justices Scott Crichton, James Genovese and Piper Griffin.

Dissenting were Justices William Crain, Jay McCallum and Jefferson Hughes.

Occasionally, when denying requests to access information, government agencies cite broad language in state law that doesn't clearly exempt the records from being disclosed, said Scott Sternberg, an attorney who represents media outlets in public records litigation, including The Times-Picayune.

"The whole opinion really just kind of kicks that entire idea to the curb," Sternberg said.

"That doesn't mean there will never be another privacy exemption. There are things that are private," Sternberg added. But, he said, the ruling should limit the government's ability to deny access to records "based on some kind of general exemption."

The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which in 2019 began seeking veterinary records relating to an LSU professor's research of wild song birds.

LSU rejected the requests, claiming in part that they were the property of a committee that was established by federal law, and thus not a public record under state law.

The university also claimed the records were exempt from release under a broad provision that protects research records of a "patentable or licensable nature," until the results of the research have been published or patented.

In his dissent, Crain wrote that allowing "unlimited or untimely access" to research "can have a chilling effect on both the research and the recruitment of qualified scholars and the funding that follows them," Crain said.

Griffin acknowledged those concerns in a concurring opinion to Weimer's. But, she said, it's the Legislature's job, not the job of the courts, to write laws protecting such interests.

"It is incumbent on the legislature to evaluate the policy ramifications and amend the relevant statutes if necessary," Griffin said.

The first legislative session of Gov. Jeff Landry's tenure included a number of proposals that aimed to dramatically limit the public's access to information.

They included a Senate bill that would have barred the public from accessing correspondence and other records produced by officials in the course of making government decisions. That measure died on the Senate floor after it was panned by good-government groups.

Ultimately, the Legislature did pass limits on government information that can be released that relates to economic development. Landry also signed a law that requires that anyone seeking records from the governor's office must be a Louisiana resident.

(c)2024 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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