Department of Education forcibly removes reporter asking to inspect records

Evan Wyloge and Jim Small | Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting

PHOENIX – The Arizona Department of Education physically removed an AZCIR reporter out of its Capitol Mall offices Thursday in response to a request to inspect the latest school letter grade records.

The agency’s security guard told AZCIR’s reporter he was trespassing and pushed him out of the public building after the reporter asked to speak with ADE staff about inspecting public records.

Arizona law explicitly requires that government agencies allow “any person” to inspect public records “at all times during office hours.”

The Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why security forcibly removed someone attempting to view public records.

AZCIR on Wednesday filed a formal records request for the electronic files that contain the school grade data and additionally requested that the records be made available for in-person inspection on Thursday, as is explicitly allowed under Arizona’s Public Records Law.

ADE Communications Director Dan Godzich responded with an email Thursday morning asking AZCIR for “legal opinions” that would provide the basis for providing access to the records.

The letter grade data has been made available to school district administrators around the state so that they can review and appeal the scores.

In a press release sent from the Arizona State Board of Education on Sept. 22, schools were urged to keep the letter grades secret, until after the appeal process. ADE has so far been unwilling to provide the records. On Wednesday, Godzich told AZCIR that he did not intend to comply with requests for the letter grade records because they “weren’t compiled.”

The press release described the records as “embargoed.”

First Amendment attorney Dan Barr said there is no legal provision allowing public records to be embargoed, and, as long as the records exist, they are subject to Arizona’s Public Records Laws.

“Once a public record is made, a public body doesn’t get to determine when to release it for its own PR value,” he said. “I’ve never seen a public document be embargoed.”

Barr also said having someone removed from a public building for requesting to inspect records is unusual.

“I don’t know of anyone trying to view public records being forcibly escorted out of a public building for trespassing,” Barr said. “People don’t get forcibly led out of public buildings unless they’re being disruptive.”

Barr is currently representing AZCIR in records litigation against a federal agency.

Danee Garone, a staff attorney with the Arizona Ombudsman’s office, the agency charged with assisting the public with access to public records and open meetings, said he was not aware of any reason a person would be escorted from a public building for asking to inspect public records.

“I don’t know what authority would allow them to remove you,” he said.

Government agencies also have to explain why access is not being provided, Garone said.

“If I’m a member of the public and I want to get a public record, all I have to do is file a request,” Garone said. “The agency has a legal requirement to tell you why they’re not giving you the record . . . A request for inspection and a request for copies are handled the same way under the law.”