Charleston talk-radio host "Rocky D" made what he considered a simple request: He wanted to know what a group of public education advocates was up to.
When the answer came down from a judge that it was none of his business, the gravel-voiced host was stunned.
"All I did was ask a question and everybody went crazy," said Rocky Disabato, a conservative radio personality with WTMA-AM.
Disabato's lawyers have appealed directly to the S.C. Supreme Court a circuit judge's recent ruling that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the S.C. Association of School Administrators, a Columbia-based education and policy group.
Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper said requiring the group's members to comply with open meeting and records provisions is an unconstitutional imposition on their First Amendment rights of free speech. Forcing them to open their doors would stifle their mission, he said.
"The First Amendment encompasses the right not to speak publicly," Cooper said as part of his decision released last month.
Disabato and his supporters contend the association's records should be considered both open and public since the group is partially funded by taxpayer money. One example is when superintendents require a county school district to pay for association membership.
"To say the Freedom of Information Act is unconstitutional, is ridiculous," he added.
The standoff began during the height of the federal government's 2009 recession bail-out fight. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford was opposed to accepting millions of dollars in stimulus money on grounds that it would create more problems than it would solve.
Disabato's FOIA request was aimed at getting copies of phone records and other documents he said might expose "collusive efforts" among the state Department of Education and others in pressing for the stimulus money. Sanford eventually requested the funds, and the issue died down until Cooper released his court decision from August.
Open-government advocates this week said Cooper's decision should be overturned, saying that any group that operates using taxpayer money must accept that its actions be open to public scrutiny.
"These people want the public money, but they don't want to be accountable to the public," said Jay Bender of the S.C. Press Association, which is not a party to the suit.
Under Cooper's ruling, he said, any taxpayer-funded group could seek to operate outside of scrutiny just by asserting it is "an advocacy organization" engaged in political work.
Disbato's attorney also questioned one point in the outcome. "No other court in the country has declared the FOIA unconstitutional," said Columbia lawyer Karl "Butch" Bowers.
The Association of School Administrators' attorney, however, said Cooper got the issue right. Free speech also means "you cannot be compelled to speak," said Columbia lawyer John Reagle.
Association Executive Director Molly Spearman also said forcing meetings to be open would have a chilling effect on the members' discussions on how to approach education improvements.
It is not clear how soon the Supreme Court could decide whether to hear the case.