Radio Host Wins Court Round Over Administrators’ Group

By Mark Walsh — January 06, 2012 3 min read

A South Carolina radio talk show host has won a round in an ongoing battle with the state school administrators’ group over a Freedom of Information Act request he filed. But the host appears to be losing the war.

A federal appeals court this week ruled against the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, or SCASA, which was seeking a declaratory judgment that the state’s information law did not apply to private groups such as it.

Rocky DiSabato, a conservative Charleston, S.C., radio host who is also known as “Rocky D,” filed a public-records request with the association, seeking copies of anything related to the association’s views on the Obama administration’s economic-stimulus law.

The association had sued then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford in 2009 over his refusal to apply for federal stimulus funds. DiSabato sought records from the administrators’ group about its lawsuit, as well as records of all telephone calls made or received by association staff members over a seven-month period.

The association rejected DiSabato’s records request, saying it was not a public entity and not subject to the state’s FOIA law. The radio host sued the association in a state court, and soon after, the association sued DiSabato in federal court. The association alleged that the information law’s broad disclosure requirements, if applied to the administrators’ group, would chill its political speech and issues advocacy efforts in violation of the First Amendment.

Both a federal district court and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled against the association’s suit on the principle of “abstention.” That is, the federal courts ruled that because a state court was considering the same issues raised by the association’s federal suit, the federal courts should bow out.

And in its Jan. 4 decision in South Carolina Association of School Administrators v. DiSabato, the 4th Circuit panel noted that a South Carolina trial court had dismissed DiSabato’s suit seeking to force disclosure from the association. The state court held that “the FOIA’s open meeting and records disclosure requirements restrict SCASA’s political speech and issue advocacy without a substantial relation to the purpose of the FOIA, and where narrower means are available to achieve the FOIA’s purpose.”

The 4th Circuit said that the association “clearly ... had an adequate opportunity to raise its First Amendment arguments before the state court,” and thus the federal courts had good reason to abstain from getting involved. The federal appellate court points out that the state court ruling has been appealed, with South Carolina’s attorney general intervening to defend the application of the state FOIA law to groups such as the administrators’ association that receive state funds.

“In sum, SCASA has already obtained the relief it sought with this federal suit through its participation in an earlier-filed state suit,” the 4th Circuit said.

Meanwhile, a South Carolina newspaper reports that DiSabato lost his radio gig last month.

“Rocky D, a scratchy-voiced conservative who jabbered during the afternoons as ‘Radio Free Rocky D,’ was told by [WTMA-AM] station management after his show Wednesday he would not be coming back,” the Charleston Post and Courier reported on Dec. 2. “His departure ends one of Charleston’s longest-running talk radio shows of recent times.”

The action did not appear to have anything to do with Rocky D’s battles with the administrators’ group. The Post and Courier said several personnel changes were made after the station’s ownership changed hands.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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