HARRISBURG - The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania today ruled that the Commonwealth Court erred when it opted not to review the social media policy of the state police and then ruled that the policy did not need to be released in response to a Right To Know request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. In its ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the Commonwealth Court’s reasoning that it must defer to the state police’s claim that releasing the policy would compromise public safety without the court reviewing the policy itself.
The case now returns to the Commonwealth Court, which must review the policy and make its own determination about whether or not releasing the policy is a public safety threat.
“This timely ruling is a win for transparency in policing,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Police do not get to hide from the public behind a blue wall of secrecy. The people of Pennsylvania have a right to know how troopers monitor their activity on social media.”
The case, ACLU of Pennsylvania v. Pennsylvania State Police, started in March 2017 when the ACLU filed its open records request. The state police responded by releasing a nine-page document in which the text was almost entirely redacted. Some pages of the document were completely redacted.
In an appeal by the ACLU, the Office of Open Records reviewed the policy and then ruled that the state police must release the document, reasoning that the alleged dangers put forth by the state police simply do not match the text of the document. The state police appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which ruled in its favor, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
“A majority on the Supreme Court has made clear that a court abuses its discretion when it takes an agency's claims at face value, and an agency cannot simply ‘check boxes’ to draft an affidavit that avoids review,” said Alicia Hickok of the law firm Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, who argued the case. “When there are sensitive materials at issue, the way that a court should strike the appropriate balance is by looking at the actual document at issue. The result is a decision that furthers the General Assembly's goal of presuming that information is public except in narrow circumstances.”
More information about the case, including the opinions issued today and the redacted document sent to the ACLU of Pennsylvania, is available at aclupa.org/PSPsocialmedia.