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

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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