Attorneys use 1st Amendment to get NMUSD e-mails

E-mails among Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials and their embattled superintendent published in Saturday’s print and Friday’s online editions of the Daily Pilot were obtained with the help of 1st Amendment attorneys.

Legal counsel for the Pilot and its parent company, Los Angeles Times Media Group, sent a letter to school district lawyers last week seeking the e-mails. They showed school board President Walt Davenport expressing strong support for Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard after he had been charged with two felonies. Hubbard has pleaded not guilty.

“The public interest in disclosure is especially strong here given allegations of misconduct (and even criminal charges) against Superintendent Hubbard which prompted his decision to be placed on voluntary administrative leave,” Karl Olson, an attorney representing the Pilot, wrote to Newport-Mesa’s attorney, Spencer Covert, on Feb. 11.

On Feb. 4, the school district initially rejected the Pilot’s public records request submitted a week earlier for all e-mails between Hubbard and Davenport. The district claimed the messages were confidential under “deliberative process privilege” — meaning that elements of normally public communications could be shielded from public review.

Olson disputed this claim, arguing that the public’s right to know outweighed the district’s interest in keeping the information confidential.

The district released a dozen e-mails between Davenport and Hubbard dated between Dec. 16 and Jan. 24.

“The public has an overwhelming right to know how its elected school board has handled the issues regarding the conduct of its top official,” Olson said in an interview Thursday. “The people whose tax dollars support the schools and whose children attend those schools, have a right to know who’s running the schools and whether the school board is minding the store properly.”

The Pilot anticipated receiving e-mails between Davenport and Hubbard dating back to 2006, when Hubbard joined the district, but district spokeswoman Laura Boss pointed out the records request was for e-mails between Hubbard and “President” Davenport, who was just sworn into that position Dec. 14.

Counsel for the Pilot disagreed with that argument. The newspaper has since asked for more e-mails than what were provided this week.

Reporters from the Orange County Register’s OC Watchdog team published support for the Pilot effort, calling on the district to release the records, and filed their own public records request as well.

Pilot Editor John Canalis maintained that the media should have access to the e-mails in accordance with the California Public Records Act.

“These documents belong to Newport-Mesa taxpayers, and I am glad they will be able to read them and draw their own conclusions about what has developed into an important story in this community,” Canalis said. “I am particularly grateful that we have access to such fine legal counsel, but also believe that documents like these should be given to anyone who asks for them — even those without representation.”