Court: Specifics Needed to Justify Montana Meeting Closures

Ruling stemmed from Wolf Point school board's decision to fire teacher after closed meeting

By Associated Press

HELENA — Montana’s government bodies and agencies must give some details about whose privacy rights they are protecting when justifying closing a meeting that would otherwise be open to the public, the state Supreme Court ruled.

Justices in a 5-0 decision Tuesday said that the Wolf Point School District Board of Trustees’ explanation for closing a four-hour meeting to the public before firing a schoolteacher in 2015 was insufficient.

Teacher Kristine Raap had waived her right to privacy to keep the meeting open, but the board closed it anyway and prohibited her from recording it. The board cited the privacy rights of unnamed individuals who were not in attendance as justification for the closure.

Justice Dirk Sandefur’s opinion said there is no evidence that an outside individual provided any information, and that a “particularized showing” is needed to comply with Montana’s open-meetings laws.

Montana’s constitution and statutes presume government meetings are open to the public, and the burden is on the agency to justify a closure due to a person’s right to privacy. That justification must be descriptive enough to provide a legal and factual basis for the closure, without disclosing private information, Sandefur wrote.

“The law requires something more than cursory reference to undescribed third-party privacy rights and mere recitation of applicable constitutional or statutory language,” Sandefur wrote in the opinion.

Raap was a new teacher four months into a one-year employment contract when then school district superintendent recommended her firing.

The board of trustees met on her case in the four-hour closed meeting attended only by her, her union representative, the superintendent, the school principal and the board’s lawyer. The board then went into executive session for 11 minutes, excluding Raap and the union representative, before terminating her contract without discussion.

Raap sued, and alleged her firing came after the board violated the state’s open-meetings laws and right-to-know constitutional provisions.

The high court reversed a lower judge’s ruling against Raap and sent the case back to the judge for further proceedings.

The court also ruled that the board of trustees did not meet its burden of proof for going into executive session.