More than a year and a half after a freelance reporter requested the Virginia State Police and the Office of Public Safety turn over its Unite the Right public safety plans, a judge ruled today that it’s time for the state to cough them up—although with some confusion about redaction and release.
Natalie Jacobsen worked with Jackson Landers, both of whom have written for C-VILLE, on the documentary Charlottesville: Our Streets about the August 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally during which dozens were injured and Heather Heyer was killed. Police were widely criticized for standing by while white supremacists and counterprotesters clashed in the streets.
Jacobsen filed a request for the safety plans under the Freedom of Information Act in 2017, and when the state refused to produce any documents, she sued, aided by the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which represents journalists around the world.
In Charlottesville Circuit Court last April, Judge Richard Moore ordered that the state turn over a redacted version of the safety plans. That same day, he issued a stay to the order so the commonwealth could appeal it.
In November, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled against the state because its appeal was filed several days before Moore had issued a final order.
During the May 22 hearing, Deputy Attorney General Victoria Pearson maintained the state should not have to release the safety plans because FOIA exempts tactical plans and because some information was already released in the reports from the governor’s task force and Charlottesville’s Heaphy report.
Virginia State Police did not turn over its plans to either investigative group, said Pearson, although Heaphy did receive some information about state plans that she suggested wasn’t accurate.
“I don’t know what harm comes from not releasing the report,” said Pearson. “It would be our position the entire report is exempt. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle once it’s out.”
Moore said the crux of the case was to balance public safety—and public access. He agreed to lift the stay and ordered the release of redacted reports.
Then he brought up an issue of how the plan would be redacted, either by blacking out the material the state police consider exempt, or by deleting the information and providing Jacobsen only what was not redacted.
Typically when reporters receive material that’s been partially redacted, information is blacked out. That was the case when Attorney General William Barr released the Mueller report.
Moore said he agreed Jacobsen should have a redacted copy, but asked that she not release it.
“I strongly object.” said her attorney, Caitlin Vogus.
“Okay then, I won’t give it to her,” said Moore. “I don’t want it released prematurely. I don’t want her saying they blacked out 20 pages.”
“Ms. Jacobsen is not interested in anything she cannot release publicly,” replied Vogus.
Moore ordered the plans released—without restriction—within 30 days.
Jacobsen said she wants to see a document with blacked-out information so she can tell how much has been removed.
“It’s a right for the public to see this information, because this was a public event,” she said after the hearing. “The Unite the Right rally actually resulted in the death of a civilian and two officers and that is pertinent and the public has a right to view it.“
She called it a “dangerous precedent” for police to think they don’t have to release information because it’s already been released by a leak or another firm, especially when the state says there may be discrepancies in the Heaphy report.
“We need to see what those discrepancies are,” said Jacobsen.
The decision, she said, “is a big win for freedom of information. It’s a right for the public to see it and I hope they will comply with the 30-day ruling and that we see it.”