SLO County newspaper and school district in legal fight over public records access

Dec 20, 2019

Attorneys for a San Luis Obispo County school district and a local newspaper are hashing it out in court over hundreds of thousands of dollars, stemming back to a story involving a high school gym coach accused of sexual misconduct over a decade ago. The San Luis Obispo Tribune published a story this week reporting the Lucia Mar Unified School District (LMUSD) wants the newspaper to pay more than $200,000 in legal fees.

In 2017, Tribune reporters began trying to access district documents about a high school gym coach who was accused of sexually harassing and inappropriately touching students, starting in 2008.

The journalists filed requests under the California Public Records Act, a law that requires public entities to hand over their documents when requested, unless otherwise exempted by law.

According to the Tribune's editorial staff, the school district delayed, then handed over some documents, but refused to show others. Roughly a year later, the Tribune's attorneys sued.

Joe Tarica is editor of the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

“[District administrators] are saying the lawsuit was frivolous and that we didn’t give them enough time to turn over the documents,” Tarica told KCBX News by phone Wednesday. “Actually, the wording in there— which is kind of stunning—is that we ‘sprinted to the courthouse,’ which is pretty ridiculous. We waited a long time.”

LMUCD Superintendent Andy Stenson told KCBX News in an email Wednesday he wants the newspaper to pay for what the school district spent defending itself from the Tribune’s lawsuit, adding the money will be restored to the district’s general fund. Other than that, Stenson said he didn’t want to comment since litigation is still pending.

The school district ended up turning over thousands of pages of documents—since 2018—which revealed the district had been slow to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct, and eventually let the gym coach resign with a severance package of almost $100,000. The school district and the coach are now facing three lawsuits from five student athletes, all led by women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred.

The Tribune's management, meanwhile, is looking to LMUSD to pay $120,000 to cover legal fees accrued suing the school district to get copies of public documents. It won't be decided until January who will end up paying whom.