Reasonable Limits on Prisoner Use of the PRA Protects Transparency

Update 3

As noted by the Seattle Times, SSB 5130 -- the prisoner injunction bill -- is now law.  It passed the Legislature and was signed by Governor Gregoire Friday, the last day of Sunshine Week.  Because the law contains an "emergency" clause, it became effective immediately upon being signed. 

Update 2

As hinted at by Greg Overstreet over at Og-Blog, the Olympian's position in Friday's editorial in support of the prisoner access bill is different from the Olympian's position in an editorial this summer.  In that earlier editorial, the Olympian opposed the Attorney General's efforts to deny prisoner access to the PRA. But last summer, the the Attorney General was arguing for a complete bar on access for prisoners, while SSB 5130 only allows jurisdictions to deny access if they first prove the prisoner is abusing the PRA. In short, the issues are different and the Olympian's current position reflects a more balanced approach to the issue.

Here's an AP article on the bill that again highlights the challenges the Department of Corrections faces because of Parmelee's abuse..

Updated 1

Here is the February 27 editorial from the Olympian supporting the prisoner access bill.  

It's unusual for a newspaper's editorial board to support legislation limiting access to public records. But we find ourself in that position on  Senate Bill  5130  and House Bill 1181.

Original Post

As noted in these two articles from the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, pending legislation  - SSB 5130 - that would allow courts to bar prisoners from making public records requests is making its way through the House and Senate in Olympia.  The bill, which seems to have momentum, would only apply to prisoners who are using the Public Records Act to harass public employees.

Prisoners may have many legitimate reasons to seek public records, and the legislation is not aimed at barring legitimate requests.  But some prisoners, most notoriously Allan Parmelee — doing 17 years for firebombing two attorneys’ cars – have developed a cottage industry of making requests in hopes of tripping up agencies and intimidating public employees.  Here’s an ABA article describing his exploits and abuse of the PRA.  A Google search for "Parmelee" and "public records" will provide many more details. 

Taxpayers have spent well over $100,000 to subsidize Parmelee’s public records business so Parmelee can intimidate and harass.  This type of abuse in no way typifies your average user of the Public Records Act, but it is not unique. Abusive requests hurt transparency by diverting resources.  Toby Nixon, the President of the Coalition for Open Government, notes another risk to transparency, arguing:

"If we don't give the DOC and possibly other agencies the ability to deal with Allan Parmelee, it ends up poisoning the situation for everyone else," Nixon said.

Transparency is not served by the abuse of the PRA.  But as drafted, the PRA can easily be abused, particularly if someone is interested in harassing a government agency or public employees.  The prisoner-injunction legislation is narrowly tailored to address one of the abuses without limiting transparency under the PRA. 

 

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