This one's for the queen of public records
FOIA fights, a new song by The Camellias, and some death penalty news
Friends and strangers keep sending me this NJ.com article about 82-year-old retired teacher Elouise McDaniel, who submitted so many public information requests to her township in New Jersey that the government tried to sue her over it.
“Good to see what your future holds,” friend-of-the-newsletter Brady tweeted at me.
“@Paul_Bowers you’re next lol,” another friend chimed in.
I mean, fair enough. As an insomniac and former newspaper reporter, I’ve been known to fire off late-night public information requests using South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and to raise a bit of a stink when agencies try to stonewall me. Until recently, I kept a tattered print copy of the S.C. Press Association Citizen’s Guide to FOIA in my work bag at all times in case I needed to cite the law when breaking up an unlawful executive session or a board meeting held without 24-hour advance public notice.
The NJ.com article left some important questions unanswered for me. It said that in 3 years, McDaniel had filed more than 75 requests for information about Irvington Township via New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) — but it didn’t indicate what she was looking for. The article mentioned McDaniel had frequent disputes with Mayor Tony Vauss and had even run a campaign against him — but it didn’t say what they argued about.
Whatever the nature of this sweet-looking retiree’s beef with her local government, I feel a kinship with her. Freedom of information laws, open-meeting laws, and “sunshine” laws are some of the best tools we have for looking under the hood of our local governments in the U.S., and I would hate to see a wave of retaliatory lawsuits like the one they slapped on Ms. McDaniel.
When I was a newspaper reporter at the Charleston City Paper and Post and Courier, I used South Carolina’s FOIA law to break a few stories. Sometimes I got fun scoops, like the time I found out the city of Charleston was not enforcing its ban on texting while driving. Other times I uncovered horrifying secrets, like the time a school district mishandled sex abuse allegations so badly that it put one alleged sex offender in charge of investigating another alleged sex offender.
Especially as our remaining local news outlets are bleeding revenue and being picked apart by hedge-fund vultures, in some communities everyday non-journalists like Ms. McDaniel might be the only ones pushing their local officials for transparency and accountability. I was relieved when I saw over the weekend that the township had dropped its lawsuit against her, seemingly out of pure embarrassment in the glare of the national spotlight.
This week I’m working on another FOIA request. It has to do with the “critical race theory” bans that right-wing pundits like Christopher Rufo and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have been promulgating in state legislatures this past year as a way to censor and punish public school teachers who speak openly about racial injustice. South Carolina has several of these bills up for debate this legislative session.
On February 16, South Carolina’s elected Education Superintendent Molly Spearman delivered a testimony to the S.C. House Education and Public Works Committee in support of several bills that would restrict the speech of public school teachers: House Bills 4325, 4343, 4392, 4605, and 4799. I submitted written testimony opposing all of those bills, and you can too; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has an easy form you can fill out to buzz your lawmakers about it.
During the committee meeting, Rep. Adam M. Morgan asked the superintendent the following question: “In the last year, how many complaints did you receive, whether from parents, teachers, whomever, related to teaching CRT in the classroom, or related to CRT?”
“Several hundred,” Spearman replied.
Now, this answer piqued my interest! Last summer, when Spearman’s office released a blanket denunciation of “critical race theory” without pausing to define the term, I used a Freedom of Information request to obtain all of Spearman’s emails on the subject of CRT up to June 9, 2021. You can read what I found here:
I read all of those emails, and none had to do with the actual scholarly framework of critical race theory. Instead, they referred to broad-ranging conspiracies involving social-emotional learning, Common Core standards, communism, the 1619 Project, cultural competency training, mask mandates — anything and everything that people were yelling about on Fox News at the time. I see no evidence that Spearman attempted to clarify matters with the people who wrote these emails, and in fact her statement seemed to only sow more confusion and fear. She’s an intelligent person and a former teacher, but she chose to do the opposite of education.
Last month, I submitted a new Freedom of Information request to the S.C. Department of Education seeking to fill in the blanks by obtaining all the emails Spearman’s office sent or received containing the phrases “critical race theory” or “CRT” between June 9, 2021, when my last FOIA request cut off, and Feb. 16, 2022, when the superintendent gave her Statehouse testimony.
The department’s FOIA officer responded with an invoice claiming it would cost $318 to furnish these records, apparently to pay for 10 man-hours of searching and redacting emails.
Thanks to some “redaction fee” guidelines that our legislators wrote into the FOIA law in 2017, officials can essentially double-bill the public for the time spent by government employees on records requests. They bill us for hours they’re already spending on the clock, and the fees we pay go … I don’t know where.
Across the state and across departments, South Carolina public officials routinely and blatantly abuse these guidelines, like when the cops in Myrtle Beach demanded $23,000 for records showing how the Horry County Police Department handled (or failed to handle) child sex crime investigations. Or the time Chester County Schools sent a $28,000 invoice for emails between the district superintendent and the school board chairwoman.
A $318 price tag for public documents doesn’t sound that bad in comparison, but as a matter of principle the price tag should be $0.00. As the good book of SC FOIA says, “Documents may be furnished when appropriate without charge or at a reduced charge where the agency determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because furnishing the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.”
When I asked why the office wasn’t waiving these fees for my request as allowed in state law, the FOIA officer wrote, “The Department does not believe that you provided a showing of how the disclosure of the requested records benefits the general public and has therefore denied a fee waiver” (emphasis mine).
We’re talking about a request for correspondence by the state’s highest elected education official, which she referenced in public testimony before some of our most powerful lawmakers, regarding policies that would affect the working conditions of our teachers and the learning conditions of more than 780,000 K-12 public school students, as well as the conditions in our publicly funded colleges and universities. There could not be a more public matter, and all fees related to producing these materials should be waived.
So I’m submitting the request again with an expanded, footnoted explanation of how the disclosure of the public records benefits the general public. This time, I’m also asking some educators, professors, and community leaders to sign the bottom of the request with me before I submit it via the Department of Education’s FOIA portal on Friday. I’ll post updates to this comically long Twitter thread I’ve been writing since last summer, and of course I’ll share the emails in the newsletter once I get them. I recently set up a Document Cloud account, so I’ll figure out a good way to index them and make them searchable online.
These public records should have been given to the public already. Assuming some of the teacher censorship bills pass the House in time for the crossover deadline this week, it will be especially important to lay the facts bare. Even if the bills don’t advance to the Senate, I’m curious enough to press the issue.
A new Camellias song
In better news, some friends in Columbia put together a compilation of radical indie, punk, and experimental music from around South Carolina and elsewhere, and it’s out now! The Comfort Monk compilation Pursuance, Vol. II is available to stream or purchase on Bandcamp, and it features a new song by my musical project The Camellias called “The Same Man.”
When Eddie Newman asked me to contribute a song for the compilation, I’d been messing around with a battery-powered electric guitar sustainer called a Sound Stone, which is like a cheaper version of an eBow built by a small company in Texas. It allows you to play the strings without touching them. You can make a note ring out forever (or as long as a 9-volt battery lasts) and generate sounds that are reminiscent of a violin or a brass horn.
I already had a long, droning loop recorded, so I added some meditative lyrics and a layer of heavier guitar. I like how it turned out! Let me know what you think.
I’m in good company on the compilation. My favorites so far are the tracks by Death Ray Robin and Ben Walker Radio. The one that really caught me by surprise is an instrumental piece by Eddie & The Hydraulic Pigeons, a project led by Eddie Shaw who played bass in — I kid you not — the seminal 1960s proto-punk band The Monks.
Yes, those Monks.
Welcome (back) to Hell World
One last thing and I know it’s old news by now, but the death penalty is back in South Carolina and this time we might have a firing squad shoot people to death. Luke O’Neil asked me to write about it for his Welcome to Hell World newsletter recently, so I did. You can go read it here:
Previously on Hell World, I did an interview with Fred Leuchter, a.k.a. “Mr. Death,” the self-taught electrician and Holocaust denier who sold and serviced death chamber equipment for 27 states including mine in the 1980s and ‘90s. A lot of his equipment is still out there; if your state still has an electric chair or gas chamber, it probably includes some of his handiwork. He was an extremely disturbing person to talk to. Here’s that interview.
FOIA be with you. Brutal South is a free weekly newsletter about class struggle, education, and religion in the American South. If you would like to support my work and get access to some extra content plus some cool vinyl stickers I’ll send you in the mail, paid subscriptions are 5 bucks a month.