18 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY march 14-20, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com requests, and unceremoniously deleting millions of documents from public access without any indication of whether they would be made available again. In a very on-brand twist of the knife, the decision to sunset FOIAonline was actually made two years prior, after an EPA office reported in a presentation that the service was likely to enter a “financial death spiral” of rising costs and reduced agency usage. Meanwhile, civil-society organizations such as MuckRock, the Project on Government Oversight, and the Internet Archive have worked to resuscitate and make available at least some of the documents the site used to host. The Doobie-ous Redaction Award: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Drug Enforcement Administration Bloomberg reporters got a major scoop when they wrote about a Health and Human Services memo detailing how health officials were considering major changes to the federal restrictions on cannabis, recommending reclassifying it from a Schedule I substance to Schedule III. Currently, the Schedule I classification puts it in the same league as heroin and LSD, while Schedule III classification would indicate lower potential for harm and addiction along with valid medical applications. Since Bloomberg viewed but didn’t publish the memo itself, reporters from the Cannabis Business Times filed a FOIA request to get the document into the public record. Their request was met with limited success: HHS provided a copy of the letter, but redacted virtually the entire document besides the salutation and contact information. When pressed further by CBT reporters, the DEA and HHS would only confirm what the redacted documents had already revealed—virtually nothing. HHS handed over the full, 250page review several months later, after a lawsuit was filed by an attorney in Texas. The crucial information the agencies had fought so hard to protect: “Based on my review of the evidence and the FDA’s recommendation, it is my recommendation as the Assistant Secretary for Health that marijuana should be placed in Schedule III of the CSA.” The Photographic Recall Award: Los Angeles Police Department Police agencies seem to love nothing more than trumpeting an arrest with an accompanying mugshot—but when the tables are turned, and it’s the cops’ headshots being disclosed, they seem to lose their minds and all sense of the First Amendment. This unconstitutional escapade began after a reporter and police watchdog published headshots of Los Angeles Police Department officers, which they lawfully obtained via a public records lawsuit. LAPD cops and their union were furious. The city then sued the reporter, Ben Camacho, and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, demanding that they remove the headshots from the internet and return the records to LAPD. You read that right: After a settlement in a public records lawsuit required the city to disclose the headshots, officials turned around and sued the requester for, uh, disclosing those same records, because the city claimed it accidentally released pictures of undercover cops. Last fall, a trial court denied a motion to throw out the city’s case seeking to claw back the images; Camacho and the coalition have appealed that decision and have not taken the images offline. The Cops Anonymous Award: Chesterfield County Police Department, Virginia The Chesterfield County Police Department in Virginia refused to disclose the names of hundreds of police officers to a public records requester on this theory: Because the cops might at some point go undercover, the public could never learn their identities. It’s not at all dystopian to claim that a public law enforcement agency needs to have secret police! Other police agencies throughout the state seem to deploy similar secrecy tactics, too. The Literary Judicial Thrashing of the Year Award: Pennridge, Pennsylvania School District Sometimes when you’re caught breaking the law, the judge will throw the book at you. In the case of Pennridge School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Judge Jordan B. Yeager catapulted an entire shelf of banned books at administrators for violating the state’s Right-to-Know Law. The case begins with Darren Laustsen, a local parent who was alarmed by a new policy to restrict access to books that deal with “sexualized content,” seemingly in lockstep with book-censorship laws happening around the country. Searching the school library’s catalog, he came across a strange trend: Certain controversial books that appeared on other challenged-book lists had been checked out for a year or more. Since students are only allowed to check out books for a week, he (correctly) suspected that library staff were checking them out themselves to block access. So he filed a public records request for all books checked out by non-students. Now, it’s generally important for library patrons to have their privacy protected when it comes to the books they read—but it’s a different story if public employees are checking out books as part of their official duties and effectively enabling censorship. The district withheld the records, provided incomplete information, and even went so far as to return books and re-check them out under a student’s account in order to obscure the truth. And so Laustsen sued. The judge issued a scathing ruling: “In short, the district altered the records that were the subject of the request, thwarted public access to public information, and effectuated a cover-up of faculty, administrators, and other non-students’ removal of books from Pennridge High School’s library shelves.” The opinion was peppered with witty quotes from historically banned books, including 1984, Alice in Wonderland, The Art of Racing in the Rain and To Kill a Mockingbird. After enumerating the district’s claims that later proved to be inaccurate, he cited Kurt Vonnegut’s infamous catchphrase from Slaughterhouse-Five: “So it goes.” The Failed Sunshine State Award: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Florida’s Sunshine Law is known as one of the strongest in the nation, but Gov. Ron DeSantis spent much of 2023 working, pretty successfully, to undermine its superlative status with a slew of bills designed to weaken public transparency and journalism. In March of last year, DeSantis signed a bill to withhold all records related to travel done by the governor and a whole cast of characters. The law went into effect just over a week before the governor announced his presidential bid. In addition, DeSantis has asserted his “executive privilege” to block the release of public records. DeSantis suspended his presidential campaign in January 2024. That may affect how many trips he’ll be taking out-of-state, but it won’t undo the damage of his Sunshine-slashing policies. Multiple active lawsuits are challenging DeSantis over his handling of Sunshine Law requests. In one, The Washington Post is challenging the constitutionality of withholding the governor’s travel records. In that case, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement official claimed the governor had delayed the release of his travel records. Nonprofit watchdog group American Oversight filed a lawsuit in February, challenging “the unjustified and unlawful delay” in responding to requests, citing a dozen records requests to the governor’s office that have been pending for one to three years. “It’s stunning, the amount of material that has been taken off the table from a state that many have considered to be the most transparent,” Michael Barfield, director of public access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, told NBC News. The FCGA is now suing the governor’s office for records on flights of migrants to Massachusetts. The “Clearly Releasable,” Clearly Nonsense Award: U.S. Air Force Increasingly, federal and state government agencies require public records requesters to submit their