By Joe McGehee
Judge Ed Prochaska will hear preliminary arguments Feb. 2, 2011, in room 426 of the Winnebago County Courthouse in the lawsuit filed against District 205 and Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield by the Illinois Press Association (IPA) and The Rock River Times (TRRT).
The lawsuit, which was filed Nov. 3, stems from the district’s refusal to release an unflattering letter written by former Rockford Auburn High School Principal and current Freeport High School Principal Dr. Patrick Hardy. The letter was written by Hardy in response to Sheffield’s letter titled “Separation of Employment,” dated June 17, 2010.
The plaintiffs will be represented by Donald M. Craven and Esther J. Seitz of Donald M. Craven, P.C., of Springfield, Ill. The IPA is the largest state newspaper association in the country, representing more than 480 daily and weekly newspapers in Illinois in matters ranging from advertising to accessing public information.
“We are extremely confident in this lawsuit,” said Josh Sharp, director of government relations for the IPA. “We believe that we will prevail in this case, and the only question left to be answered is how much the district will have to pay.”
If the IPA and TRRT are victorious, District 205 would be responsible for not only covering the legal fees of the plaintiffs, but could also face fines of up to $5,000.
Calls to District 205 officials for comment went unreturned as of press time.
The IPA and TRRT are among the first to file suit against a public body under the revised Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the state of Illinois. In fact, District 205 is the first public body in the state to face litigation for not adhering to the guidelines of the FOIA.
According to the complaint: “The School District willfully and intentionally failed to comply with the FOIA in relying on a series of baseless exemptions, one after another, in an effort to avoid compliance with the FOIA and eventually abandoning those exemptions only to cite further inapplicable exemptions.”
The complaint also asserts that “In alleging those baseless exemptions of the FOIA, the School District acted in bad faith.”
Register Star editorial backs efforts to obtain letter
The editorial board of the Rockford Register Star published an editorial in the Nov. 8 issue backing TRRT’s and the IPA’s efforts to obtain Hardy’s letter.
The editorial stated: “This is no longer a local issue. It’s a statewide issue with statewide consequences. The IPA represents 480 newspapers in Illinois, and all of them have an interest in the outcome of the lawsuit.”
The editorial also cited what the editorial board viewed as a mistake by district officials in not releasing the letter earlier to TRRT, writing “The district would have been smarter had it made the letter public and put it in the proper context.”
From the Nov. 10-16, 2010 issue