(OLYMPIA, Wash.) — The Washington State Court of Appeals on Monday ruled that a Freedom Foundation lawsuit over the names and birthdates of thousands of state employees can continue at least long enough to determine whether the organization is entitled to the information as a member of the “news media.”
At issue are a pair of Public Records Act requests submitted in February 2020.
One records request asked the state’s Department of Retirement System (DRS) for the full name and birthdate of any employee participating in the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) or the School Employees Retirement System (SERS). The other asked the Office of Financial Management (OFM) for the full name and birthdate of every state employee in a union-represented bargaining unit.
As always, the Freedom Foundation wanted the information so it could inform public employees of their newly affirmed right to opt out of union membership and dues.
On March 1, 2020 — the day after the requests were submitted — a new state law went into effect limiting the ability of state agencies to release the “personal information” of state employees. Nonetheless, both DRS and OFM informed the union representing employees affected by the request that they intended to comply unless ordered not to.
By March 26, several unions had filed a complaint to prevent the release of the employees’ names and dates of birth. On April 8, a trial court issued a preliminary injunction against the Freedom Foundation, finding that the requests violated the employees’ privacy, was not in the public interest and would cause irreparable harm to union members.
Freedom Foundation attorneys quickly appealed, arguing the revised state law:
- could not be applied to an information request submitted before it went into effect; and,
- includes an exemption if the requester is a member of the news media — a classification that would include the Freedom Foundation.
The Appeals Court three-judge panel on Monday rejected the first argument but conceded the Freedom Foundation could well be a media outlet and remanded the case back to the trial court until that question can be settled.
By state law, the “news media” is defined as:
“Any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book publisher, news agency, wire service, radio or television station or network, cable or satellite station or network, or audio or audiovisual production company, or any entity that is in the regular business of news gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means, including — but not limited to — print, broadcast, photographic, mechanical, Internet or electronic distribution.”
“The Freedom Foundation publishes a monthly newsletter and two news magazines a year,” said Litigation Counsel Sydney Phillips. “It also posts countless blogs to its website and produces numerous video messages. It gathers and disseminates information by every allowable form of communication. The Freedom Foundation meets or exceeds every standard for a member of the news media and is clearly entitled to receive the information requested.”
“This is just what unions do,” said Freedom Foundation CEO Aaron Withe. “They know the law isn’t on their side, so they waste their members’ dues money and clog up the courts with frivolous lawsuits and motions assuming we’ll eventually lose patience and give up. But we won’t.”
Every legal victory, he said, no matter how procedural or trivial it may appear, moves the ball closer to the unions’ goal line. Moreover, it shows the bullies that the Freedom Foundation isn’t going to take its eye off the ball.
“We’re not going away,” Withe said. “Doing the right thing may take a little longer, but it’s worth it.”