An activist group supporting the Purple Line won a legal victory Thursday when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled the Town of Chevy Chase wrongly sought high fees for copies of public documents concerning the town’s fight against the light-rail line.
The court ruled Chevy Chase violated the First Amendment rights of Action Committee for Transit and member Ben Ross of Bethesda. The town charged the fees, the court ruled, because it expected ACT and Ross to criticize the community’s opposition to the Purple Line.
“Any time an agency says to you, ‘We’re not giving you this information because we don’t like you or we don’t like the things you say,’ this case says you lose,” said Elliot Feldman of the Baker Hostetler law firm, who represented ACT and Ross pro bono.
Ross hailed the decision.
“I think it’s a real victory for everyone’s right to public information,” Ross said.
Efforts to reach representatives of the town were unsuccessful.
In its ruling, the court said that “without belaboring the issue, we agree with appellants that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression of speech protects persons from the imposition of financial burdens based upon the content of their speech.”
In early 2014, ACT sought documentation from Chevy Chase about the town’s hiring of legal, lobbying and public relations firms to fight the Purple Line. The multibillion-dollar Purple Line will connect Bethesda with New Carrollton, with stops in Silver Spring and College Park; the route will pass through Chevy Chase. Construction started last month, then a federal judge vacated federal approval of the project and ordered another study of the Purple Line’s ridership forecasts.
Although the town complied with ACT’s first information request, in subsequent requests the town insisted ACT and Ross pay to cover research costs. The Maryland Public Information Act allows government agencies to charge reasonable fees, and they can waive research and copying costs if the requests are deemed to be in the public interest. In January 2015, Ross and the organization appealed the costs in a suit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
However, in defending its position, the town claimed ACT and Ross had engaged in a “smear campaign” against the town concerning its Purple Line opposition.
The Special Appeals court’s decision quoted a memorandum from the town that read:
“ACT had posted false accusations against the Town on ACT’s website and had repeatedly attacked the Town because of the Town’s opposition to the proposed Purple Line project, accusing the Town of acting illegally. The Town, like any private citizen, is entitled to take a position on the public issue. … Thus, the Town rightfully disbelieved ACT and Ross’s claims that the request for the fee waiver was in the ‘public interest.’ ”
The Special Appeals court sent the case back to the circuit court for further proceedings.