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Federal Judge Opens Inquiry Into Maryland Speed Camera Secrecy
Court discovery could force Rockville, Maryland to reveal whether officials withheld speed camera records to avoid criticism.

Judge George HazelA federal judge will decide whether a Maryland city used excessive fees to discourage release of embarrassing information about its speed camera program in violation of the First Amendment. US District Judge George J. Hazel last week agreed with motorist Eric Wang that discovery was in order to determine whether the city of Rockville denied his freedom of information fee waiver request solely because he intended to use the documents to write an op-ed article opposing speed cameras.

"Plaintiff argues that additional discovery is necessary to determine whether other participating city employees, including the city attorney and city manager, engaged in viewpoint discrimination," Judge Hazel wrote in a memorandum opinion. "Plaintiff is correct."

Last April, Wang asked for a number of records that would shed light on the operation of the photo ticketing program. Specifically, he requested recent emails and other records referring to the program's goals, including the financial targets. He also sought internal communications from the city council about the cameras, particularly those discussing the placement of new cameras.

Maryland's public information act (MPIA) requires jurisdictions to turn over such records without a fee if the requestor cannot afford to pay, or if doing so is in the public interest. Wang provided the city with a list of sixty opinion articles he had penned as evidence of his intention to use the material to further public discussion. Wang also explained that he would share the material with the Maryland Drivers Alliance, which is involved in an ongoing lawsuit against Montgomery County seeking to force over speed camera transparency. The county refused to email an electronic copy of relevant database records, and instead insisted that it had to print paper copies of the records and then scan them in at a cost of $19,000 -- far more than the $150 fee that Wang is contesting.

The amount of the fee is beside the point, Wang argues. In a 1986 ruling, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals found that it was unlawful for a jurisdiction to refuse to consider a public interest waiver. The question before the court is whether Rockville's city manager and city attorney moved to impose this fee because they did not want the information to be used to criticize the city.

"If the city violated the First Amendment in denying Wang's fee waiver, the city's action cannot be upheld under MPIA," Judge Hazel wrote. "The court cannot rule on whether the city impermissibly denied plaintiff's fee waiver request without adjudicating plaintiff's First Amendment claim."

That means city officials could be questioned under oath in a deposition to determine their motivation. A copy of the opinion is available in a 120k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: Wang v. Rockville (US District Court, District of Maryland, 2/8/2018)

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