MOUNT PLEASANT — Over the objection of the town's mayor, South Carolina's fourth-largest city has gone to court seeking to prevent the release of a police incident report involving a Town Council member and a public middle school.
The report involves a conflict between students at Thomas C. Cario Middle School in October and the involvement of Councilman Kevin Cunnane, who was described as "rude" and “belligerent” by school employees in the police report. The incident involved no charges or arrest, and the conflict involving students was listed as a "disturbance."
Cunnane previously told The Post and Courier he was the one who called a school resource officer during a meeting with school administrators. He suggested political enemies were using the incident to try to smear him and said the report "should not be fodder for politics or the media” if it involves juveniles, which it does.
The incident report was released in April to Mayor Will Haynie, who had filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get it from the town's Police Department. The report was subsequently obtained and published by the newspaper, and was published on the S.C. Press Association's website.
Now, the town has three FOIA requests pending for the report and related information but also has been threatened with civil litigation by a lawyer representing a child identified in the original, unredacted report.
“This is a rare occurrence where we have multiple FOIA requests for a specific document, and we also have a letter from a lawyer representing the child, telling us not to release it," said Julia Copeland, one of Mount Pleasant's lawyers. "What we're trying to do is protect the town's interests."
Copeland said that, using a provision added to South Carolina's FOIA law in 2017, the town is asking a judge to rule that the request material is exempt from disclosure.
“Here’s the thing; they already released it," said Eric P. Robinson, an attorney not involved with the case who teaches media law at the University of South Carolina. "It’s gone. They can’t pull it back."
Copeland described the Court of Common Pleas filing late Wednesday as a request for administrative relief. The filing lists The Post and Courier, Channel 5 News and the Charleston City Paper as defendants.
“The Post and Courier believes the report in question is clearly a public record," said Executive Editor Mitch Pugh. "We will assess our options in light of the town’s action.”
Robinson described the town's court filing as "a novel application of a new (FOIA) provision" that was meant to address "people who are sending FOIA requests to the point where they are overwhelming the town."
“To refuse to release the entire report is problematic," he said.
Haynie has been a critic of Cunnane, who is up for re-election this year, and of the town's legal team. At a Town Council meeting Tuesday, Haynie led a failed attempt to change Mount Pleasant's legal representation, and he cast the lone vote against the legal filing in the FOIA case.
Cunnane recused himself from voting on the legal filing.
"Would a private citizen’s name be redacted from a police report? Then why should an elected official's be?," Haynie posted on Twitter Thursday afternoon.
In April, the same month Haynie obtained the police report, Cunnane allegedly cursed at the mayor in a private setting, and Councilman Joe Bustos subsequently criticized Cunnane for that at a Town Council meeting. In September, Cunnane apologized for calling town Board of Zoning Appeals member Barry Wolff a vulgar, gender-based insult in a private message.