Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s fight with a reporter over a very simple public records request should bother every Idahoan concerned about government transparency.
Idaho Capital Sun reporter Audrey Dutton in April requested a copy of the Google Sheet data from the lieutenant governor’s education indoctrination task force feedback form.
As you may recall, McGeachin convened a task force to root out any indoctrination going on in public schools, aiming “to protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”
To help the task force, McGeachin asked the public to fill out a Google survey with their stories.
The lieutenant governor’s office has been obstructive, less than forthright and opaque, and has worked to delay the release of the records. It’s going on two months now.
I have found that disputes over public records don’t resonate with many readers. The issue is often seen as an esoteric fight between “the media” and politicians. It is, indeed, usually a journalist filing a public records request; not a lot of members of the public file public records requests, so the practice often is a foreign concept.
As the chairman of the First Amendment Committee of the Idaho Press Club, I’ve been assisting Dutton in her request. We’ve been able to enlist the help of former U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, now with Stoel Rives, in helping the lieutenant governor’s office understand its legal obligations under the Idaho Public Records Act.
Reporters are painted, particularly among a certain segment of the public, as the bad guys. In this case, that’s just what McGeachin is doing.
“They are insistent that we give them YOUR personal information,” McGeachin wrote in a Facebook post on her official lieutenant governor page.
The “personal information” we’re talking about here is name and email address. No Social Security numbers, not your bank account number, not phone numbers or home address. Just name and email address, along with the comments submitted to an official government task force. We ask for more than that for people who submit a letter to the editor.
The reason you should care has to do with government transparency and the role reporters play in verifying government information on behalf of the public.
Suppose McGeachin were to say that 3,396 people provided 3,396 individual examples of critical race theory indoctrination in Idaho schools.
Would you believe her? Remember, she’s the lieutenant governor, i.e., “the government.” Would you believe what “the government” tells you?
That’s why it’s important for “the media” to verify information “the government” provides. That’s what we do.
By having the feedback, along with names and email addresses, reporters are able to follow up with those individuals, confirm it was indeed that individual who submitted that comment, perhaps even get more information from that person. We want to know, too, whether indoctrination is going on in Idaho’s public schools. There’s nothing nefarious about this request, as McGeachin seems to suggest.
In fact, this is a pretty routine request, honored by other elected officials. As Dutton pointed out in a recent article, the Sun in April requested copies of comments submitted to Gov. Brad Little regarding a bill on voter initiatives. The governor’s office quickly provided the public records.
McGeachin is clearly misapplying a really bad-to-begin-with state law that was passed last year regarding email communications between a member of the public and a state legislator. McGeachin is arguing that because the task force chair is a legislator, Rep. Priscilla Giddings, those comments should be kept a secret. She’s the only legislator on the task force.
A public records request, like this, is just a reporter doing their job, on behalf of the public. This record belongs to the public, and you should have access to it.
By the way, provided with my comments in this column are my name and email address.
Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.