LATEST FROM OHIO SUPREME COURT: Less Protection to Keep Public Employees Safe from Harm

Ahh, the joys of public service. Having a lower salary than your private sector counterparts? Check. Regularly hearing “I pay your salary!” from random people? Check. And now, if a union leader wants your name to give to his angry and potentially violent members — according to the Ohio Supreme Court — check and double check.

In State ex rel. Quolke v. Strongsville City School Dist. Bd. of Edn., Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio- 1083, handed down last month by the Ohio Supreme Court, a teachers union boss asked a local school district for the personal identifying information of the replacement teachers who had been hired to fill the spots of those who walked off the job. Although labor union violence is largely a phenomenon of the last century, the rise of social media has brought harassment tactics into the digital age. People with a grudge often wield the mouse and the keyboard the way skull-crackers once used the club and the pipe. And the results can be almost as damaging.

Against this backdrop, leaders of the local school district feared for the safety of the teachers who chose to come into the classrooms and educate children while other teachers walked (or sat) a picket line. As the Court recounted, when applicants who wanted to teach came to a public building to offer their services, an angry union mob of as many as 100 people swarmed. The words of the Court paint a vivid picture:

“The crowd took pictures of applicants and screamed obscenities at one applicant who entered the building with her two small children. Many applicants were visibly shaking when they entered the building. Others were in tears and afraid to leave. Eventually, school administrators began leading applicants to their cars through a rear entrance with a police escort. Some applicants never returned. Several media outlets reported on the crowd’s actions.”

This was a troubling display of unprofessionalism and one that rightfully worried the replacement teachers, who feared for their family’s safety. And it turns our their concerns were valid. Because the harassment got even worse. Again, the frightening details come right from the Court’s own findings of fact:

“Replacement teachers discovered notes left in classrooms containing offensive messages. Signs were distributed in neighborhoods where some replacement teachers lived identifying the teacher by name and disclosing his or her address. [The union] posted a ‘wall of shame’ on its website with the pictures of some replacement teachers; the posting was accompanied by derogatory and offensive comments. Picketers continued to harass and intimidate replacement teachers during the strike. It was reported that a striking teacher was arrested by the Strongsville Police Department for reckless driving when he allegedly cut off a van transporting replacement teachers to work. The replacement teachers reported to the police that the other driver nearly caused a collision with the van. The replacement teachers described the incident as ‘harrowing’ and ‘outrageous’ and stated that they ‘feared the worst’ and were ‘frightened.’”

Union leaders — who would normally aggressively fight to stop the release of personal information of their own members — sought not just the names of the replacement teachers but also their addresses, private home phone numbers, cell phone numbers and much more.

One might expect that the state supreme court would intercede to offer some measure of protection for these teachers who wanted nothing but to work in their chosen profession and educate children. But, following — and advancing— a recent line of cases, the justices ruled that the school district was required to release the names of the teachers to the very group that was fueling the harassment.

In past cases (typically involving police) the high court has wisely held that withholding of names of public employees is warranted in cases where there is a substantial risk of serious bodily harm. They also extended that protection to private citizens in a case where I wrote the state’s brief and made the argument for protection. That case, State ex rel. McCleary v. Roberts, 88 Ohio St.3d 365 was a landmark decision that many believed struck a proper balance between the public’s right to know and the need to protect innocent people from danger (in that case, children who attend a city pool).

Back to the teachers union case. The Supreme Court, upholding a ruling by a lower court, essentially determined that the potential for danger disappeared once the strike was over and, as a result, the fear of substantial risk of serious bodily harm had expired. This, despite the fact some teachers union activists had vowed to make sure that the replacement teachers would suffer for the rest of their careers.

In short, this case extends the law somewhat, in that it creates an element of timing to the previous test of showing evidence of “substantial risk of serious bodily harm.” With this holding, Ohio law now is more clear – such a risk must be still present in order for a public office to withhold personally identifying information of public employees.

Isaac Wiles often represents public offices involved in high-stakes litigation surrounding public records law. We were honored to write a Friend of the Court appeals court brief in this case, on behalf of the Ohio School Board Association. This is just the latest case where our attorneys have made arguments on issues of importance to political subdivisions.