The Judiciary Committee of the Maine State Legislature held a hearing Tuesday on a bill that would clarify that public record requests submitted pursuant to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) are not “hate speech.”
Maine’s FOAA allows anyone to request certain government records that would otherwise be unavailable to the public.
But some government employees have bristled in recent months at requests for records related to controversial topics related to Maine’s public schools.
“With the comments last week from [Education Commissioner Pender Makin] saying that academics will take a back seat to teaching postmodernism and critical theory, I think we can expect to see a big rise in FOAA requests,” said Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris), the lawmaker who introduced the bill.
“At the end of the day we should be doing everything we can to protect our constituents’ right to know,” he said.
Several lawmakers on the committee seemed confused about the rationale for Andrews’ bill, which may be in part because Maine media paid scant attention to the November proceedings of the Right to Know Advisory Committee meeting.
In November, Right to Know Advisory Committee member Victoria Wallack, who also serves as the communications director for the Maine School Management Association (MSMA), said that she considered it “hate speech” for people to submit public records requests to school systems related to gender identity policies.
“Our great concern with the Freedom of Access request our districts have been receiving is that they target gay, lesbian and transgender students,” she said.
“If these types of targeted FOIA (sic) requests are allowed to go forward — and make no mistake, these requests are intended to discourage public support for all students regardless of their gender identity — it will be despicable misuse of the FOIA (sic) law,” she said.
Gender identity policies have become increasingly controversial in several Maine communities, leading parents, activists, and journalists to submit FOAA requests seeking more information about those policies.
At the time Wallack made those comments, many right-of-center activists took them as a sign that Democratic lawmakers would face pressure from the powerful public school lobby to limit the scope of Maine’s already lax public access law.
Andrews has introduced several other bills that would empower public records requestors and bring Maine’s public access laws more in line with places with robust government transparency laws, like Illinois and the city of Baltimore.
But what exactly inspired Wallack to conclude that some public records requests were hate speech?
Following Wallack’s remarks, the Maine Wire submitted a FOAA request to MSMA for any requests they’ve received which the organization considered hate speech.
In response, MSMA Executive Director Steve Bailey could not provide an example of a public record request that contained hate speech, as the term is commonly understood.
MSMA was not able to produce records concerning the “hate crime” FOAA requests Wallack had referred to, Bailey said, because her comments were based on anecdotes that the organization had heard about on phone calls.
“Vicki Wallack and I have participated in numerous phone calls from member school districts that have raised issues regarding the safety of students that included hate speech and/or threats against students in the Maine public school system,” Bailey said in an email. “There have been numerous conversations held such as this throughout this challenging time period.”
Because the “hate crime” FOAA requests were only mentioned on “numerous phone calls” with unnamed parties, Bailey could not provide copies.
The Maine Wire asked Bailey to provide more specific information about which schools had received the “hate speech” FOAA requests, and when they received them, but Bailey did not respond to that request.
In the initial FOAA response, he did say that some of the emails he received from citizens requesting public records and some comments on social media were interpreted by MSMA as threats toward MSMA employees.
“In addition to the emails I’ll describe and provide, the comments and rhetoric evident on certain social media posts provide an additional context of hate speech/threats against employees of the Maine School Management Association,” he wrote.
“Bold font, an accusatory tone, derision, and arrogance were evident within the emails – and while that may have not been the intent, that was the way the emails were received due the manner in which they had been crafted,” said Bailey.
Rather than hate speech, Bailey’s complaint with public record requests MSMA has received appears to be that the requestors were unkind and not sufficiently deferential to government employees.
There is no requirement in Maine’s FOAA that individuals seeking public records be nice to government employees.
Bailey provided three email chains in which he highlighted the problematic text from a public records requestor, all of them written by parental rights activists from the Maine First Project, notably public school gadfly Shawn McBreairty.
In Bailey’s view, McBreairty’s requests for public records were threatening because he informed MSMA employees that his request “should take a 12 year old about 5 minutes” and “any legitimate business would have this on hand.”
McBreairty, who regularly uses FOAA to obtain information about the non-public operations and deliberations of Maine’s public schools and their administrators, had previous requested employee compensation data from MSMA.
Most government agencies produce compensation data fairly easily and quickly in response to FOAA requests.
Bailey also flagged, in response to the FOAA request for examples of “hate speech,” an email Maine First Project President Larry Lockman, a former Republican lawmaker from Amherst, sent to his subscribers encouraging people to show up to a Right to Know Advisory Committee public hearing.
In that email, Lockman said “legions of Cultural Marxists zealots who run the indoctrination camps are wailing that they’re being “harassed” by parents filing Freedom of Access Act requests.”
Lockman’s email contained a screenshot of an email from Wallack (obtained via FOAA) that showed she was specifically targeting McBreairty.
In the third email Bailey provided to the Maine Wire, McBreairty is seen telling Wallack, “I feel like you are targeting me and I feel violated by your email. Your hateful comments seem misplaced and I request you apologize, in writing.”
Bailey highlighted the request for an apology as an example of threatening speech.
The MSMA is a non-profit organization that serves and supports public school boards and superintendents in Maine.
Unlike other non-profits operating in the state, MSMA is subject to FOAA because it was created via statute in 1971.
MSMA offers various services, including training programs for school board members and superintendents, legal assistance, policy development support, and legislative advocacy.