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Monday, September 27, 2021

FOIA requesters need protection against retaliation; in egregious case, court allows First Amendment theory

Intersection of state highways 42 & 61 in Conyngham Town, Pa.
(2019 photo by Mr. Matté CC BY-SA 3.0)
A bizarre FOIA case decided by the Third Circuit suggests that use of an open records act in the public interest triggers constitutional protection against retaliation under the First Amendment.

A businessperson and landlord in Conyngham, Pennsylvania, John McGee used the state freedom of information act (FOIA), called the Right to Know Act, to investigate his suspicions of financial malfeasance in town government.  A town supervisor then sent to McGee, you read that correctly, a demand for private business information, purportedly issued in the name of the town and under the authority of the FOIA.

McGee asked the board of supervisors for an explanation, and they refused to give any.  In a lawsuit, McGee alleged violation of substantive due process rights and the First Amendment.  He alleged that he did not know that the town's demand was unlawful and unenforceable.

The district court dismissed both counts; the Third Circuit reversed and remanded on the First Amendment claim.  The court explained:

In order to prevail on a retaliation claim under the First Amendment, “a plaintiff must … [prove]: (1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory action sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights, and (3) a causal link between the constitutionally protected conduct and the retaliatory action.” Thomas v. Indep. Twp.... (3d Cir. 2006). There does not appear to be any dispute that McGee engaged in constitutionally protected speech, nor that there was evidence of a causal link between his speech and the Right-to-Know request [supervisor Linda] Tarlecki gave him.

Only the middle prong was at issue on appeal, and the court found sufficient evidence for McGee to fend off summary judgment.  The test for deterrence is objective, the Third Circuit emphasized, so it doesn't really matter whether McGee was deterred as a matter of fact.

What intrigues me about the case is the apparently non-controverted question of element (1).  The Third Circuit opinion is ambiguous on what serves so self-evidently as McGee's constitutionally protected conduct.  McGee previously had been critical, in public testimony, of the board of supervisors for how it managed the housing code, but that doesn't seem to be the impetus for retaliation here.  His FOIA request may be construed as a petition of government or as a precursor to further public criticism.  The court did not specify.

In the law of the United States, at the federal level and in most states, requesting access to information is a statutory privilege, not a constitutional right per se.  There is a strong argument that the distinction is immaterial to attachment of the First Amendment right to petition to a FOIA request.  But de facto, in my work in FOIA advocacy, retaliation against FOIA requesters is a real and serious risk.  When asked for counsel by persons contemplating use of FOIA to investigate government, I warn would-be requesters of the possibility of retaliation.

If the First Amendment affords protection against retaliation, it's not an easily won theory.  First, there are practical problems.  Finding an attorney willing to bring a First Amendment claim against government is neither easy nor cheap.  Civil rights litigation and First Amendment law are both complicated.  Attorneys who practice in civil rights prefer the familiar patterns of discrimination and harassment based on race or gender.  In small legal communities such as Arkansas's, attorneys are loath to sue sugar-daddy government.  The thin possibility of winning attorney fees, even with a multiplier, upon a convincing legal victory is not enough to incentivize counsel.

Second, legal problems loom on the merits.  Usually problematic is the third element, causation.  The conduct here in McGee is unusual in its blatant motive.  Ordinarily, when local officials deny zoning variances, liquor licenses, or other privileges to applicants who happen to be accountability mavens, the causal connection cannot be shown to a constitutionally satisfactory certainty.

Element (1) is often a problem, too, because would-be requesters are also often would-be whistleblowers.  Under the muddled constitutional jurisprudence of the rights of public employees, the First Amendment does not preclude being fired for blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's government workplace, much less the act of filing a state FOIA request to the same end.

There's a cruel irony of inefficiency in our First Amendment jurisprudence in that public employees are least protected when they speak of what they know best.  The jurisprudence rather favors being a team player in government.  Defectors, however righteous, must seek protection in statute, where there might be none.

When I worked on FOIA advocacy issues in Arkansas, before I moved to Rhode Island in 2011, I aided Reps. Dan Greenberg and Andrea Lea with 2009 H.B. 1052, which amended the state whistleblower protection statute with express protection for the use of FOIA.  Opponents of the bill argued that it was unnecessary, because existing law protected state employees in communicating concerns to elected officials.  My experience suggested that an elected official carelessly chosen was as likely to burn a whistleblower as to facilitate accountability.

More aggressive protection of FOIA requesters should be the norm throughout the United States.  Retaliation should not have to be as overtly wrongful as in McGee to trigger protection, whether statutory or constitutional.

The case is McGee v. Township of Conyngham, No. 20-3229 (3d Cir. Sept. 23, 2021).  U.S. Circuit Judge Kent A. Jordan wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Judges Marjorie Rendell and David J. Porter.  HT @ Prof. Rob Steinbuch and Prof. Eugene Volokh (Volokh Conspiracy).

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