Newspaper obtained college's DVDs through legal means

Nicole D. Perez, Alice Echo-News Journal

An attorney who offers opinions to newspapers on behalf of the Freedom of Information Foundation said Wednesday a temporary restraining order issued against an Alice Echo-News Journal reporter was "erroneous."

District Judge Michael Welborn issued a temporary restraining order against reporter Christopher Maher and eight other defendants Monday demanding the return of copies of DVDs all had obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act through the 79th District Clerk's office.

The DVDs were filed with the court in April after an employee of the college alleged he was ordered to destroy the documents, which he deemed public.

The Journal received a copy of the DVDs after filing an FOI request in May.

Charles Daughtry, an attorney from Houston, said the newspaper legally obtained copies of DVDs through the FOI Act, and said Judge Welborn may have overstepped his bounds.

"Commanding you to give it back before a hearing is erroneous," Daughtry said via telephone. "The purpose of a temporary restraining order is to maintain the status quo. Status quo in this case is you used legal means to obtain the DVDs. I believe this is abuse on the judge's part."

Daughtry said while the judge can order Maher not to release the DVDs to anyone, which Welborn did order, he cannot order Maher to return the information.

CBC attorney Phillip A. McKinney contends that much of the information on the DVDs falls under attorney-client privilege. The data includes emails written between staff members and various complaints filed by students and staff members.

An internal policy of CBC, however, clearly states the college considers emails to be public information.

The "Warning Regarding Violation of CBC Internet Policy and Non-College Business" states "all messages created, sent or retrieved over the college's email/Internet are the property of the college and should be considered public information." The policy further states, "People should not assume electronic communications are private."

In McKinney's application for the temporary restraining order, he contended CBC could be defending itself against several Equal Employment Opportunity claims by current and former employees, whose attorneys are listed as defendants in this restraining order.

McKinney also contends the files contain personal data of personnel.

Daughtry says, though, that each document obtained by legal means should first be reviewed by the judge to determine what falls under attorney-client privilege.

"The bottom line is you got them through the proper channels," Daughtry said. "If they inadvertently released some items that may fall under attorney-client privilege then those need to be documented and they need to ask for those files back.

"The judge needs to review each document and determine what is open and what is not."

A hearing for a permanent injunction is set for July 9 in Sinton.