You’re fed up.
Maybe the local school is trying to brainwash your kids into little left-wing foot soldiers. Or the school board is full of purple-haired Gender and Women’s Studies Majors who don’t really care about education but are singularly dedicated to some ideological crusade they learned about at Simmons. Perhaps Little Johnny comes home from school crying about his white privilege and says his teacher spends more time talking about pansexualism than algebra.
Whatever the case, you’ve decided it’s time to assert your constitutional right to control your child’s education.
Well, good news. Because the Maine Wire is always looking for parents who can collect information, provide us tips, and share their stories. As you may have read (or heard), Parent-Journalists have provided the Maine Wire with explosive information about what’s happening in the school system. In one instance, a teacher was recorded attempting to brainwash an 8th grader with left-wing talking points. In another, a meeting about diversity, equity, and inclusion descended into chaos when one parent was tarred as a racist for criticizing the school’s “woke” projects. In both instances, voters and taxpayers were only able to learn about what’s going on in schools thanks to brave parents documenting the events and providing information to the Maine Wire.
In the following post, I’m going to share some information with you that will help you learn more about local government and your local school, and I’ll show you the tools you need to be an effective investigative reporter for your kids.
Know the Recording Laws
You can record any public meeting space, secretly or otherwise. Some left-wing punk might tell you that it’s illegal, he might get in your face and say you don’t have his consent, but that doesn’t matter. If you are in a public meeting space, like a school board meeting room or a town council meeting room or the State House, you can record. No one needs to know you’re recording, and you don’t need anyone’s consent. If it’s a public meeting, it should already be recorded somewhere, but even if it’s not, you’re allowed to record with your phone. So let it rip! I mean, don’t be obnoxious about it, but record until your heart’s content.
The average smartphone has a better microphone in it than most professional journalists used even 15 years ago. But you can improve your experience by knowing which application to use. If video is necessary, then of course use video. But if you’re only looking to capture audio, then use Voice Memos (or the Android equivalent) as that will result in a much smaller file, which means a longer uninterrupted recording time. If you really want to up your game, check out these wireless microphones. They’re dead simple to use, and the applications are almost limitless.
Important to note: You’re not allowed to record conversations to which you’re not a party. For example, you wouldn’t want to leave one of those microphones I just linked to in a room where you knew that school board members were meeting in a private executive sessions. Definitely wouldn’t want to do that. Generally, you may only record conversations where you’re a participant, i.e. no eavesdropping.
For phone conversations, Maine is also one of a few states that allows a single party to record a phone call. That means, you can have a phone conversation with a teacher or a principal or a state lawmaker, and you can record that phone call without their knowledge or consent. You’re going to want to be sure they’re actually physically located in Maine at the time the call takes place. I have a little bit of experience with this one, because a certain Attorney General tried to jam me up for recording the Catholic Church on a conference call as it conspired with left-wing activists.
Know the Public Records Laws
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is, on the one hand, very broad and useful. But, on the other hand, it’s toothless and easily exploitable by bad-faith actors who work for the government. Knowing the letter of the law, but also how it works in practice, can help you acquire the public records you want.
First, almost everything related to government and government employees is a public record. I’ve requested call-logs from the House Speaker’s office phone before, and I’ve requested autopsy reports, bodycam footage, three-decade-old police reports. But the most common requests include financial records and communications.
On the financial records front, parents should request, every year, all financial records from their school district and their town, including both employee salaries (inclusive of benefits) and vendor payments. Those two categories should cover every dime the town or school spends. You are allowed to request that those records be delivered to you in electronic format, i.e. Excel spreadsheet. While the law does not require government employees to create a new record in response to your request, it also doesn’t allow them to force you to accept printed records when electronic records are available. You can ask for individual financial records, but it’s often easier to just ask for everything, because any organization with half-decent accounting should have those easily available.
When it comes requests seeking communications, we’re talking about emails. And I just need to ask all parents: don’t be jerks with this. In recent years, parents have cottoned on to the idea that they can ask for every single email school employees ever sent that mention the world “pencil.” Now, it’s your right to ask for that, I myself am guilty of submitting overbroad requests from time to time. But there’s a few reasons why those requests are generally a waste of everyone’s time.
First, government employees know about FOAA, and we know that they actively work to keep controversial content out of the public record. So most likely you’re not going to catch the school superintendent talking about his extramarital affair with an assistant principal in an email, just to throw out a completely random example. And you’re probably not going to find the kind of outright criminal activity you might be looking for. Just think about it: Do you really trust a politician or a bureaucrat to turn over an email that incriminates them? Come on… Besides, teachers, bureaucrats, and politicians all know at this point not to email about something that could come back to haunt them.
Second, government employees know how to use FOAA to stymie your investigation. It is 100% legal for them to request fees as high as $50,000 if your request is overbroad and would require hundreds of hours to fulfill. Now, government employees know that they can massage those hours. Gov. Janet Mills’ lawyers do it to me all the time. A request that should take a competent private sector professional 15 minutes to fulfill takes Mills’ crack team 10-hours of search time, and in 6-9 months I might maybe get my documents. It’s even legal for them to quote you a higher rate than your neighbor for the exact same request! Again, Mills’ very honest and ethical lawyers do it to me all the time.
The only remedy to bad-faith actors who exploit weaknesses in Maine’s public records law is forethought and precision. Instead of asking for “all emails that mention Critical Race Theory,” you might ask for “all financial records related to professional training on issues of race and gender from Jan. 1, 2019 to Jan. 1, 2020.” If your request is narrow, targetted, and polite, you’re more likely to get what you want in a somewhat reasonable timeframe. You always want to specify the type of record you’re looking for, and the timeframe. You don’t want to ramble in your public record request, but it doesn’t hurt to add in a: “By financial records I mean any contract or record of payments to individuals or companies hired by the district to conduct professional training for school employees on matters of race or gender.”
The third and final reason not to use overbroad requests for emails is that it makes hack government employees look sympathetic. You might feel like a righteous justice fighter by asking the town clerk in Smyrna to hand over 5 years worth of documents, but what you’ve really done is give a 60-year-old retiree a bunch of paperwork that she might not even know how to do. Instead of exposing some grand conspiracy, you’re going to give the bums at the newspapers material to write a story about how our brave school workers are just so overwhelmed with record requests that they don’t have time to hang up the gender quiz posters. That, in turn, supports efforts to curtail FOAA.
Lastly, a word on exemptions: Maine’s FOAA includes exemptions, that is, provisions that allow government officials to withhold public records. Under the law, officials are required to tell you which exemption they are invoking in each instance in which they’ve withheld a record. Always ask in your request that they identify the exemptions they are claiming in each instance they claim them.
Ultimately, Maine’s FOAA needs to be reformed to prevent bad actors from exploiting weaknesses in the law in order to withhold records from the public. But until that happens: be smart, be civil, be strategic, and be precise. By knowing the letter of the law, and how it works in practice, you’ll be much more likely to get the public records you deserve.