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Emily Bazelon ’00 and Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic Win Access to Settlement Agreement in Phoebe Prince Case

In a victory for both Yale Law fellow and lecturer Emily Bazelon ’00 and Yale Law School clinic students, a Massachusetts Superior Court recently ordered disclosure of a settlement agreement between the town of South Hadley, Mass., and the family of Phoebe Prince, a teenager whose 2010 suicide after being bullied at school attracted national news attention. Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA), under the supervision of the Massachusetts ACLU, represented Bazelon in the public records litigation over the settlement document.

The settlement stems from a complaint filed by Phoebe Prince’s family with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), which alleged that South Hadley Public Schools had failed to protect Phoebe from discrimination amounting to sexual harassment. The Town of South Hadley settled the suit for $225,000 in exchange for full release of all claims, according to the documents released to Bazelon in December 2011.

Bazelon, who is the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law and Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School as well as a senior editor for Slate, requested a copy of the settlement agreement under the Massachusetts Public Records Law in May 2011. Edward J. Ryan, Jr., Town Counsel for South Hadley, denied her request, citing a confidentiality clause and claiming that the settlement was not subject to disclosure because it was paid by the town’s insurer and did not come from public funds.

With Bill Newman of the Massachusetts ACLU, MFIA argued that Ryan should not have denied the request because the settlement agreement satisfied the definition of a public record under Massachusetts law, and it did not fall under any of the enumerated exemptions in the Public Records Law.

Judge Mary-Lou Rup of the Hampshire Superior Court agreed, granting Bazelon’s motion for a preliminary injunction requesting immediate disclosure of the agreement. “Bazelon has demonstrated that she (in her role as a news reporter) and the public have a First Amendment right to access the information contained in these settlement documents,” the judge wrote. “Bazelon has shown that continued lack of access [to] these documents will result in irreparable harm to her and the public that outweighs any harm to the defendants.”

“I hope this sets a precedent, by signaling to towns that they can’t subvert open records acts by outsourcing settlements to insurance companies and agreeing to suspect non-disclosure clauses,” Bazelon said. “The public has a right to know how South Hadley handled this allegation of wrongdoing, and I’m very grateful to MFIA and the ACLU of Massachusetts for helping me bring this information to light.”

MFIA clinic students Isia Jasiewicz ’13, David Lamb ’13, and Alyssa Work ’13 worked on the case. MFIA, an initiative of the Information Society Project and the Knight Law & Media Program at Yale Law School, was founded by Yale Law School students to defend the public’s right of access to government information and to support traditional and emerging forms of newsgathering. Through MFIA, Yale Law students work under the supervision of veteran media attorneys who volunteer their time pro bono on cases where private actors lack the resources to prosecute the public’s access rights.