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Friday, October 13, 2000
AG's ARGUMENT PREVAILS IN SCHOOL RECORDS CASE
Court's Opinion Adopts AG's Argument on Electronic Records
AUSTIN - The Eastland Court of Appeals has released a decision vindicating the public's right of access to governmental records that are created or stored electronically. At issue is a citizen's right to obtain electronically produced test scores from a school district - in this case the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) - and whether the district must conceal students' identities to ensure privacy.
Appearing in the appeal as a friend of the court, the attorney general argued that amendments to the Public Information Act require public access to electronic records. The court adopted the Attorney General's interpretation.
"We are pleased that the court's decision reinforces the general principle that citizens have a right to electronic information, too, and not just to government records that are stored on paper," said Attorney General John Cornyn. "This court decision means that the Public Information Act will continue to fully apply in the computer age and that the public's right to know will keep pace with technological advances."
The case involves Russell Fish's request to the DISD for a copy of the database of student test scores. Fish and the Dallas Chapter of the NAACP wanted to analyze the student test scores to see if DISD student performance was improving or getting worse in certain schools.
The District argued that it could not release the information because the database connects test scores to student names. Mr. Fish argued that a simple computer program could be run to replace student names with random, confidential numbers. DISD argued that under state law Fish could not require the school district to replace student names with the confidential numbers, so DISD refused to release the information. Fish sued DISD for the information. Then the trial court granted summary judgment for DISD, a decision Mr. Fish in turn appealed.
In its friend of the court brief, the attorney general argued that the law does require DISD to change the names. In 1995, the Legislature amended the Public Information Act to address electronic information. The attorney general argued that those new provisions should apply in this situation. In its opinion the appellate court ruled that DISD is incorrect and that the law does require the school district to make changes and release the information if student names will be protected.
The case was remanded to district court for further evidence about what methods can adequately protect student names.
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Contact Mark Heckmann, Heather Browne, or Tom Kelley at (512) 463-2050
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