Appeals court tosses fine against Valley Mirror

A California appeals court on July 18 tossed a $56,595 award of attorney fees and costs against Valley Mirror publisher Tim Crews which would have been a death sentence to the newspaper and might have chilled journalists statewide who pursue public records from government agencies.

Writing for a unanimous three-justice panel of the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, Justice Andrea Hoch – formerly a top official in the administration of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – said the appellate record “shows Crews’ [Public Records Act] request was based on his decision to engage in a journalistic investigation of whether [former Willows Unified School District superintendent Steve] Olmos or the District misused public property.” The Court of Appeal went on to find that Crews’ records was not frivolous and reversed a 2011 decision by Glenn County Superior Court Judge Peter Twede. Twede had ordered Crews to pay the school district $56,595 in attorney fees and costs.

The case stemmed from Crews’ request for a year’s worth of e-mails from Olmos, whom Crews suspected of having used district resources to lobby for a bond issue and for the recall of the Glenn County Superintendent of Schools. It attracted statewide media attention and friend-of-the-court briefs from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee supporting Crews. The California School Boards Association’s Education Legal Alliance filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the school board.

Crews had told the courts that the fee and cost award against him would have put his paper out of business and that it was about three times his annual income. He said of the appellate court ruling, “We are gratified that the Court of Appeal recognized that my pursuit of records was based on my decision to pursue a journalistic investigation of whether Olmos or the district misused public property, and that we pursued public records in good faith, not to harass Olmos or the District. Our pursuit of records was not frivolous, as the court found. Any other ruling would have had a serious chilling effect not just on our newspaper, but on newspapers statewide. The Valley Mirror looks forward to continuing to serve the citizens and taxpayers of Glenn County, and to continuing our pursuit of public records shedding light on the business of government.”

Willows Unified School District officials were unavailable for comment.

Crews’ appellate attorney Karl Olson, a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in the Public Records Act and won a 2007 California Supreme Court decision that the names of public employees and their salaries must be disclosed, said the Court of Appeal ruling recognized the right of citizens to make Public Records Act requests and that even burdensome Public Records Act requests should not be punished with an award of fees and costs against the requester unless they were “totally and completely without merit” or brought to harass. Olson said the ruling would safeguard the rights of citizens, watchdogs and taxpayer groups to hold government accountable and to probe government spending. “Any other ruling would have had a serious chilling effect upon newspapers and government watchdogs statewide,” he said.

Justice Hoch’s ruling sets legal precedent statewide. It was joined by appellate Justices Coleman Blease, who was appointed by Governor Brown in 1979, and Justice M. Kathleen Butz, who was named to the appellate court in 2003 by Governor Gray Davis.

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