Editoral: City overreacts in censoring emailsMenlo Park's decision to delete a flood of emails sent to the City Council in support of a fired gymnastics instructor raises serious questions about how far a city can go to ostensibly protect itself from a potential defamation lawsuit.
Apparently that is the rationale behind the wholesale elimination of a flood of emails sent to the city in support of Michelle Sutton, who was fired after a disagreement with a parent who created a disturbance in her class. The parents complained by email about the incident, which prompted a supervisor to reprimand Ms. Sutton the next day. She was fired 12 days later, despite an outpouring of support from her fellow workers and the parents of her students.
On Feb. 21, Assistant City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson posted a message on the city's website saying that "because postings on this site are public, to the extent postings relate to confidential personnel matters and/or might constitute potentially defamatory content for which the city could have liability if allowed to remain posted on the site, the city does and will continue to remove postings that relate to confidential personnel matters and/or that could expose the city to potential liability."
Regardless of Ms. Jerome-Robinson's admonition that postings about Ms. Sutton's case would be removed, the fired teacher's supporters continued to pack the city's website with supportive messages late in the day on Feb. 22. Parents said their children were asking for Ms. Sutton when they attended gymnastics classes, and others questioned the city's decision to fire her. By 5 p.m. Friday, after city offices had been closed all day, more than a dozen messages in support of Ms. Sutton remained on the website.
Virtually all the messages extolled Ms. Sutton's character and skills as a gymnastics instructor and were not in any way defamatory toward the supervisor who fired her. Others were highly critical of the city for taking the action against someone they perceived to be a beloved gym instructor who had many close relationships with her students and their families.
Council member Ray Mueller also became involved, inviting anyone concerned that his or her email message about Ms. Sutton would disappear to write directly to his City Council account at firstname.lastname@example.org. "I will collect them all, I will not delete them, and I will give them to the city manager," Mr. Mueller told the Almanac.
The city is developing a pattern of locking up information that rightfully belongs to the public. In January, a request by the Almanac for non-confidential, public-record statistics regarding convictions or terminations of Menlo Park police officers, with no names or other identifying characteristics attached, was turned down. And earlier, a request to obtain police logs for a three-year period was at first denied, although finally released after a fight. One post by a resident in support of Michelle Sutton said "... email blogs allow citizens to feel as if they have a voice, but that feeling vanishes if the city behaves as if the emails have never been read and acts as if the message will never be received."
Jim Ewert, an expert in media law and a staff attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, was aghast at the city's actions.
State law requires that records be kept a minimum of two years. In addition, he said, "these are just comments; it is as if these individuals are petitioning the government to influence a decision."
He likened the situation to what happens at a City Council meeting when a member of the public comments. The remarks are saved for posterity in the form of minutes and video recordings, which are archived on the city's website.
In our opinion, there is a distinction between letters emailed to the city's website that simply express surprise and shock about Ms. Sutton's dismissal and compliment her skills as a gymnastics instructor, and a message that attacks the character of the supervisor who fired her. Many websites, including the Almanac's, do not permit personal attacks on other posters.
But just because Ms. Sutton was fired is not, in our view, a good enough reason for the city to delete any message mentioning her name or the incident in question, which are hardly grounds for a defamation case.
Mr. Ewert put it this way: "They (the city) are immune (from a defamation lawsuit) because these are privileged publications in the scope and course of a public hearing, if you will."
He added: "It's ludicrous. They (the city of Menlo Park) have taken the phrase 'tortured logic' to a new level."