A Virginia school board is suing two mothers, arguing that documents “inadvertently and mistakenly” released through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared online included confidential information.
The Goldwater Institute on Thursday filed a motion with a Virginia judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Fairfax County School Board against Debra Tisler, who obtained documents from the board through a Freedom of Information Act request, and Callie Oettinger, who shared the redacted documents on her website.
According to the Goldwater Institute, the school board handed Tisler more than 1,000 pages of receipts from its law firm related to the superintendent, the board and investigations into the district’s cyber hacking incident last year and its virtual learning program.
According to the board’s lawsuit, four days after the documents were released to Tisler, district officials learned that “identifiable student and personnel information” had been “inadvertently and mistakenly” released to Tisler without receiving a “second-level review by counsel.” The board sued Tisler on Sept. 27 after she refused its multiple requests to return the digital documents, the lawsuit states. Oettinger, who published some of the documents on her website, specialeducationaction.com, is named in the lawsuit after refusing to delete them from the website, the board said.
Last week, a state judge issued an order barring the women from sharing the documents pending further order of the court, and Oettinger subsequently took the documents off her website. The Goldwater Institute on Thursday filed papers asking the judge to withdraw that order and dismiss the case immediately.
“It’s a shameful abuse of authority and a form of bullying by school officials who are the employees of Callie and Debra,” Timothy Sandefur, the Goldwater Institute’s vice president for litigation, told Fox News. “For the school board to turn around and sue them for trying to be engaged citizens concerned about what’s going on in public schools their tax dollars pay for – it’s disgraceful and the school board should be ashamed of its behavior.”
Sandefur argued that Supreme Court precedent shows the school board is in the wrong.
“If newspapers can’t be barred from publishing stolen military documents during wartime, then parents certainly have a constitutional right to publish documents the government gave to them pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request,” he said, referring to the Pentagon Papers in the 1973 case of New York Times v. United States.
“Virginia law says that if you accidentally give somebody something that’s covered by the attorney-client privilege, the privilege no longer exists,” he added. “We have a First Amendment right to publish it, because you waived the privilege by turning over these documents.”
Tisler told Fox News that she wanted the information about the school district’s spending information because she “noticed that there’s been an excessive use of legal representation,” and parents had grown concerned that not enough funding was going toward students’ needs.
“I was shocked to be sued by my children’s school district — all for caring about their education and for speaking out,” she said in a press release. “Fairfax County Public Schools’ school board is readily spending millions on legal fees instead of allocating those funds for direct services to children. The hypocrisy surrounding the actions of the school board is excessive.”
“Based on proceedings so far, we can state that a Fairfax Circuit Judge last week ordered two county residents — Debra Tisler and Callie Oettinger — to stop,” Fairfax County Public Schools Media Relations Manager Julie Moult said. “The order also requires the two residents to take down internet postings that contain the protected information. The ruling came after the school system learned that certain personal, sensitive and legally protected information was inadvertently released in response to a FOIA request. We deeply regret that this error occurred, and we continue to pursue the matter because we are doing everything we can to mitigate the impact on students and employees. FCPS tries its hardest every day to do the right thing, including protecting the privacy of students and employees.”
An FCPS spokesperson told Fox News in an email that Tisler and Oettinger were “distributing sensitive and protected information about individual students and employees who are not related to them .”
“The two residents refused to stop disseminating the material about other parents’ children and individual employees, so we were forced to seek the court’s intervention. Being a taxpayer doesn’t give one the right to publish private information about other people’s kids,” the spokesperson added.
Sandefur said Oettinger plans to republish the information on her website if cleared by the court.
“As a parent, I have a right to know what’s happening in my children’s school, and as a taxpayer, I have a right to know how money is being spent,” Oettinger said in the release. “I created my site to help advocate for children with special education needs. This includes sharing and holding Fairfax County Public Schools accountable for its noncompliance. I will not let them silence my voice.”
The case is pending in the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia.
The school board’s legal representation did not immediately return Fox News’ request for comment.
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