James Brown suit could change SC freedom of information laws

Published: Mar. 2, 2017 at 6:00 PM EST
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News 12 NBC 26 / Thursday, March 2, 2017

AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- All week long we've been bringing you investigative reports into discipline issues at local schools.

We're able to do that because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guaranteeing that the public -- not just journalists -- can access public information. It's how we've reported on stories like the Marshall Square fire, the dashcam video in the North Augusta officer-involved shooting that took the life of Ernest Satterwhite.

Now, a lawsuit in South Carolina could change who can access public information, and it's already affecting a high-profile case centered around the Godfather of Soul. The biggest thing in question here is can you, a private citizen, be stripped of your FOIA rights if you're being sued by a public body?

That would change the game. It would mean a lot of time and money that people probably don't have.

Right now that question is playing out in a lawsuit over one of James Brown's former trustees, Adele Pope. She requested some public documents, but once the Attorney General sued her, the court ruled she could only get those documents through discovery, a lengthy process of a lawsuit.

Newberry Journalist Sue Summer has been covering the case for years.

"This past August was my fifth anniversary, but I did not crack open a bottle of champagne," Summer said. "I thought I could duck in and do my bit for the FOIA and be home by Christmas. I thought it would not be a big deal because clearly the documents are written by the Attorney General. They had to be public documents and would be released immediately. I was wrong!"

There was never an official ruling on the case. Circuit Judge Doyet Early III just dismissed the case. Now it's pending int he court of appeals.

For the average person, this case could have big implications. It could affect normal citizens who have nothing to do with James Brown.

"Seems like by this logic, all somebody would have to do is sue you to prevent you from getting a public document," reporter Christie Ethridge said.

"And then you'd have to go through the process of discovery, which is very expensive, and it would create tremendous delay," Summer said.

Think of it this way. If you live in a city and want to see its budget, the city could sue to prevent you from seeing it. Then you'd have to wait months, maybe years, to get that information through the court process.

That goes directly against the language of the law which protects the release of public information at a "minimum cost and delay."

"No rules apply. Just when you think you know what team somebody's on they change jerseys," Summer said.

Pope requested the documents on the James Brown estate years ago. According to the Freedom of Information Act, they're supposed to respond within 15 days.

News 12 NBC 26 spoke to Pope's attorney Adam Silvernail who says since this case is making its way through the court of appeals, it could take another four months to a year to get a final ruling. Even then, either side could request the South Carolina Supreme Court to take a look.

In the meantime, the legal fight continues.

"The FOIA cases have been a baffle to me," Summer said. "The concern I have is small newspapers often do not have the resources to fight a public official or an agency that says we're not going to give you these documents. Who does have the money to do that? Certainly not a private citizen. Well, there are some who are that well-heeled, but not your average Joe. That would be a real burden to place on somebody to get public documents."