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N.H. Supreme Court Rules Public Has Right to More Government Records

Dan Tuohy / NHPR
New Hampshire Supreme Court

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued two opinions Friday that will require government agencies to share more information with the public.

In 1993, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that public employee personnel records, including disciplinary records, are exempt from disclosure under the state’s Right to Know law. But Friday, more than 25 years later, the state's high court has overruled that decision, known as Union Leader v. Fenniman, as well as prior decisions that relied on a broader interpretation of the Right-to-Know Law.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court concluded “only a narrow set of governmental records, namely those pertaining to an agency’s internal rules and practices governing operations and employee relations” falls within the Right-to-Know exemption.

Friday’s rulings come from two casesbrought by local news organizations, TheUnion Leader and SeacoastOnline, who had sued over access to police department documents. Each case touched on whether Fenniman was correctly decided, or if the current justices should should overturn the ruling.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of ACLU of New Hampshire which helped bring both lawsuits, said in a statement that the original exemption was used by government agencies to “prevent access to critical information, such as that concerning police officer misconduct or how a school district responded to allegations of sexual abuse by a former teacher.”

Bissonnette said this new ruling will “ensure government accountability in the Granite State.”

Both cases have been sent back to lower courts for reconsideration.

The Seacoast Online case involved whether an arbitrator’s report on the firing of a Portsmouth police officer who had an improper relationship with an elderly woman with dementia should be disclosed.

While many of the details of Sgt. Aaron Goodwin’s actions are already public, the Portsmouth Herald filed a Right-to-Know request for the report in part because it may reveal any payments made to Goodwin by the city upon his termination.

The second case, brought by the Union Leader Corp., involves an audit into the Salem Police Department. A version of that audit was released to the public and made available on the town’s website, but the names of officers and any identifying information was redacted.

The town’s attorney, Barton Mayor, argued last November that the redactions were appropriate under Fenniman and that even without the names, the residents are still able to obtain a clear picture of how their local government functions, which is the end goal of theRight to Know statute.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
Lauren is a Senior Reporter/Producer for NHPR's narrative news unit, Document.
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