In court

Nearly a dozen Keene State College journalism students attended a court hearing in December 2017, in a right-to-know lawsuit their professor, Marianne Salcetti (second row), brought against the city of Keene on behalf of five students.

A Keene State College journalism professor and a group of her former students have appealed a lawsuit over public records to the N.H. Supreme Court.

The dispute dates to fall 2017, when students in Marianne Salcetti’s public affairs reporting class requested public records from the city of Keene.

New Hampshire’s right-to-know law requires governmental entities to provide access to public records on request, unless those records are shielded by one of the law’s exemptions.

The city denied or partially denied five of the students’ requests for a variety of reasons.

Salcetti and the students — Colby Dudal, Alex Fleming, Meridith King, Grace Pecci and Abbygail Vasas — sued in late 2017, alleging the denials violated the right-to-know law. Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff ruled against them last year.

The Supreme Court appeal was filed in April.

“We believe the superior court did not construe the right-to-know law properly in terms of favoring disclosure broadly, and instead construed the exemptions not narrowly enough,” said Gregory V. Sullivan of the Manchester firm Malloy & Sullivan, who is representing Salcetti and the students on appeal.

Previously, Salcetti represented herself and the students.

The appeal asks the high court to consider several questions, including whether the city misinterpreted certain requests, whether the city should have lowered or eliminated the fees it quoted for producing certain documents and whether the city should have to reveal the names of police officers in reports about citizen complaints of excessive force.

Salcetti and the students have until July 16 to file a brief with the Supreme Court. The city will have 30 days to respond.

As part of her fall 2017 class, Salcetti had students file public records requests with governmental bodies of their choosing, she told The Sentinel when the lawsuit was filed that December.

The city fulfilled requests from some students in the class, but could not do so for the ones that became the basis of the lawsuit, Dragon said at the time.

The five requests involved restaurant inspections, police officers’ use of force and certain types of criminal investigations. They were denied for different reasons, including personnel privacy. The city saw some requests as asking staffers to compile information into lists — essentially forcing them to create new documents, which the law does not require.

“Some of the stuff they were looking for is more research in nature,” Dragon said in 2017. “It’s not like they asked for a document. It was asking us to do research for them.”

Salcetti has argued that the city misinterpreted those requests and improperly used the law’s exemptions to avoid disclosure.

Sullivan said that while some students did use the word “list,” others used phrasing like “all documents.” Those “were turned into requests for lists not by the students, but rather by the city,” Sullivan said.

In his August 2018 order, Ruoff accepted the city’s interpretation that certain students seemed to ask for “lists,” rather than the underlying files. One request asking for certain police records, the judge wrote, was vague enough that the city could have rejected it for not adequately describing the records sought.

Two students requested lists of food establishments in Keene that fell below a certain inspection score. After some confusing back-and-forth, officials eventually told the students that the restaurant inspection records were kept in an electronic database, and city employees could not create custom reports.

One of the students, King, thought of a workaround — she requested any emails about health inspections the city had sent to restaurants in Keene.

Dragon, the city manager, told her three years of emails would produce 800 to 1,000 records, each one to three pages long. She said the city would charge a per-page printing cost that could add up to some $300.

King declined. It was, she later wrote in an affidavit, “a cost that is far out of my budget range, especially for what I assumed would be public knowledge.”

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PCunoBoothKS