Courts & Crime

Fort Worth told it must disclose names of witnesses to gay bar raid

FORT WORTH — Fort Worth's legal department cannot withhold the names of people who witnessed the June 28 inspection of the Rainbow Lounge despite its arguments that disclosure would violate the witnesses' privacy, the Texas attorney general's office has ruled.

The ruling, received by the Star-Telegram on Friday, states that while common-law privacy can protect information that contains highly intimate or embarrassing facts, such information must not be of legitimate concern to the public.

"Because of the nature of the incident that occurred at the Rainbow Lounge, the involvement of law enforcement personnel, and the ensuing internal investigation, the public has a legitimate interest in the identities of individuals who were present at the scene of the incident; therefore, the individual's identifying information must be released," the ruling states.

City attorneys asked for the opinion after several media outlets, including the Star-Telegram, filed open-records requests asking that the Police Department release its investigative report on the bar inspection, which was conducted by police officers and two officers with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

The inspection, which led to public-intoxication arrests and left one patron with a serious head injury, sparked local and national protests by gay-rights advocates.

Police released the investigative report with the witnesses' names deleted. The city's attorneys argued that because the club caters to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the public might speculate that witnesses named in the report are homosexual or condone homosexuality.

Assistant City Attorney Patrick Phillips said Tuesday that his office is reviewing the attorney general's ruling and has not decided whether to release the names or challenge the decision. To do so, the city would file suit in a Travis County state district court.

In a letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Star-Telegram asserted that withholding the names would "completely undermine the purposes of the Public Information Act."

"Never has a court, or your office, held that a claimed exception to disclosure could be based not on the content of the requested information but rather on the possible inferences some reader might draw from the information," the letter from Managing Editor Lois Norder stated.

"If that premise were to be accepted, the possible negative inference someone might draw from a piece of information could be limitless, and the exception would swallow the entire statute."

David Chapman, a Duncanville attorney, echoed that sentiment in his own letter to the attorney general's office. "There stands a reason why this privacy right cannot be applied blindly/broadly, or be used to protect against what a governmental body 'thinks' the public might speculate," Chapman wrote. "Doing so would devastate the public's access to a majority of public records."

Allowing a governmental body to hide witnesses' identities based on sexual-orientation privacy, Chapman wrote, would mean that the government would likewise have to withhold information that might cause people to speculate that a person was heterosexual. "The privacy rights of a homosexual individual are not greater than those of a heterosexual individual," Chapman wrote.

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