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Fairfax County School Board Sues Parents over Publication of ‘Mistakenly’ Released FOIA Docs

Fairfax County school buses sit in a in Lorton, Va., July 22, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Goldwater Institute on Thursday filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Fairfax County School Board against two mothers, one of whom had posted confidential information that the district “inadvertently and mistakenly” released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

On September 27, the school board filed suit against Debra Tisler, who obtained the documents through a FOIA request, and Callie Oettinger, who shared the redacted documents on her website, Fox News first reported.

Tisler received from the board 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 and its virtual-learning program.

Four days after the documents were released to Tisler, district officials discovered that “identifiable student and personnel information” had been inadvertently and mistakenly” released without getting a “second-level review by counsel,” according to the board’s lawsuit

The suit comes after Tisler declined several times to return the digital documents. Meanwhile, Oettinger published some of the documents on her website, specialeducationaction.com, and was also sued by the board over her alleged refusal to delete them.

A Virginia judge issued an order prohibiting the women from sharing the documents last week pending further order of the court. Oettinger then removed the documents from her site.

On Thursday, the Goldwater Institute asked the judge to withdraw the order and dismiss the case. Timothy Sandefur, the group’s vice president for litigation, told Fox News the school board’s suit is a “shameful abuse of authority and a form of bullying.”

“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 said.

He argued that Supreme Court precedent in the case of New York Times v. United States allows the parents “a constitutional right to publish documents the government gave to them pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.”

“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.”

Oettinger plans to republish the information on her website if granted permission by the court, according to Sandefur.

Tisler said in a statement that she was “shocked to be sued by my children’s school district.”

“Fairfax County Public Schools’ school board is readily spending millions on legal fees instead of allocating those funds for direct services to children,” she said. “The hypocrisy surrounding the actions of the school board is excessive.”

Fairfax County Public Schools media-relations manager Julie Moult told the outlet that district officials “deeply regret that this error occurred.”

“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.”

A spokesperson for the district told Fox News that it was “forced to seek the court’s intervention” when “two residents refused to stop disseminating the material about other parents’ children and individual employees.”

“Being a taxpayer doesn’t give one the right to publish private information about other people’s kids,” the spokesperson said.  

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