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Washington High Court Backs Disclosure of School Employees Being Investigated

Two public school employees have no right of privacy against the disclosure of the fact that they are under investigation by their school district, Washington state's highest court has ruled.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the investigation of the employees by the Spokane district "is merely a status of their public employment, not an intimate detail of their personal lives."

The court held that the employees are not covered by any exemptions in the state's Public Records Act, and certain documents about their status must be disclosed.

The case involves two longtime Spokane district employees who have been under investigation since late 2011 or early 2012. The two employees sued the Spokane district to bar the disclosure of records including an administrative-leave letter and spreadsheets documenting the pay the employees are receiving while being investigated. The information was requested by two media outlets, though they aren't parties to the case.

A state trial court ordered the records disclosed with the employees' names redacted.

In its April 2 ruling in Predisik v. Spokane School District No. 81, the state supreme court ruled that even the names should be disclosed.

The majority said a person has a right to privacy under the state Public Records Act only in matters concerning his or her private life. 

"A public employer's investigation is an act of the government, not a closely held private matter that gives rise to a privacy right under the PRA," the majority said. The administrative-leave letter and the spreadsheets do not disclose the alleged facts underlying the investigation of the employees, it said. 

If the court accepted the employees' arguments, the court said, "there would be no opportunity for the public to discover the District's ongoing three-year investigation, much less question the effectiveness of what some might consider an awfully long process. Government cannot be held accountable for actions it shields from the public's eye."

The dissenters said that because the allegations against the employees have not yet been substantiated, "they do not bear on the teachers' performance as public servants and do not inform the public of specific instances of misconduct during the course of employment. Therefore, the employees have a right to privacy in their identities."

The decision in favor of disclosure of public school employees' names is the second by a state's highest court in a matter of days. On March 25, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a public-records request by a teachers' union president for the names of replacement teachers who served during a strike.

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