Part town crier and part town scold, Tim Crews arrives at work each day at the Sacramento Valley Mirror with one goal to print the news as he sees fit, and maybe raise a little ruckus in the process.
No one would ever mistake Crews' Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows for the Gray Lady of New York. But that doesn't matter. The U.S. Constitution doesn't distinguish between nuanced journalism written by well-educated sophisticates, and punchy prose written by scruffy wretches who are more at home talking to the afflicted than the comfortable.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal, 3rd District, will convene in the Stanley Mosk Courts Building in Sacramento to take up a case involving Crews that is fundamental to the First Amendment.
The case arose when Crews got wind that public money was being misspent at Willows Unified School District and filed a public records act request for a year's worth of the superintendent's email.
Crews sought a large amount of information. There were roughly 60,000 emails to cull, a huge burden for any school district, particularly one of 1,700 students. Crews' lawyer sued to compel prompt disclosure. While Willows produced many of the emails, the district withheld 3,200 of them.
Glenn County Superior Court Judge Peter Twede, a subject of a prior Crews public records act request and unflattering coverage, ruled in 2010 that Crews had no right to the 3,200 pages and ordered him to pay $56,000 in court costs.
Crews the Mirror's owner, editor, reporter, photographer and ad salesman had costs last year of $170,000 and income of $150,000. If he must pay $56,000, he surely would be forced out of business, Glenn County would lose the publication that pays especially close attention to its government affairs, and the precedent would threaten all public affairs journalism.
The California School Boards Association is taking the side of the Willows school district, contending that public records act requests are costly and burdensome. That may be true. But people making requests also pay reasonable costs associated with fulfilling those requests.
The Legislature has carved exceptions describing information that can be withheld. If other information rightly should be withheld, the school board association should appeal to the Legislature, and not defend court-imposed fines that threaten a newspaper's existence.
The California Newspaper Publishers Association and major news organizations including McClatchy, owners of The Bee, have come to Crews' defense, recognizing that the issue goes far beyond Willows and the Sacramento Valley Mirror. It goes to the heart of the public's right to know about the affairs of its government.
If they risk five-figure fines for guessing wrong about what ought to be public, reporters and owners of their publications will have to think long and hard before requesting anything other than spoon-fed press releases.
The California Public Records Act is premised on the notion that access to public information is essential to an informed citizenry. The act doesn't confer special rights on news reporters. But reporters are tribunes who serve readers by invoking the act when appropriate to obtain and disseminate information that officials might prefer the public not have.