School Board Faces Critics in Court; It's Suing Them to End Requests

Saturday February 17, 2001 Copyright 2001 The Record Online, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

Staff Writer

An attorney representing three Lyndhurst residents sued by the township school board for pestering the board with questions pleaded with a judge Friday to dismiss the case.

The board is claiming that school operations have been hampered because Stanley Kaminski, Elaine Stella, and Mary Sheridan have asked for more than 300 records during the past two years.

In a lawsuit filed in August, school officials say it's politically motivated harassment. Stella and Sheridan are former board members and, like Kaminski, ran for the board in 1999.

The board wants Judge Isabel B. Stark to limit the residents' requests to records that are explicitly labeled public under the state's Right to Know Act. Trustees also want the residents to pay for any legal fees or other expenses related to all future information requests.

"What are we as a board to do when we are deluged with over 300 requests in a period of two years?" Douglas F. Doyle, an attorney representing the school board, asked Stark in state Superior Court in Hackensack.

"We came to you because we don't know what to do. We continue to get harassed," Doyle said. "And all of this goes to the detriment of our students."

But attorney Lane Biviano, who is representing the three residents, said the board's lawsuit is merely an attempt to silence three critics by forcing them into expensive litigation.

"They shouldn't be allowed to sue these three citizens with taxpayers' funds," Biviano said.

School officials have exaggerated the number of requests made by the residents, as well as the work that goes into filling each request, Biviano said.

He estimated that they have made an average of four requests a month during the past two years.

"That's 24 requests," Biviano said. "That's not thousands of documents."

Stark did not make a ruling Friday.

She hinted that the school board's case may have merit, yet she indicated that she was against restraining the residents from simply asking for records.

"If you want me to restrain them, that's an infringement on their First Amendment rights," Stark told Doyle.

The lawsuit has angered government watchdog groups across the state and helped inspire a state senator to introduce legislation this week that would bar public entities from suing residents for criticizing them.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest, said he drafted the bill after reading about the Lyndhurst case and an earlier lawsuit in which the River Vale school board filed a defamation suit against a critic whose scathing letter was published in a weekly newspaper.

"These are suits that I think should be very much discouraged," Cardinale said Friday. "This is America. You've got a right to speak out."

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