Judge Grants American Oversight’s Request for Release of Virginia Governor’s ‘Divisive Topics’ Tip Line Records

On Wednesday, the Arlington County Circuit Court granted American Oversight’s petition to require the Office of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to release records related to the governor’s “inherently divisive concepts” tip line. 

In a hearing held as part of American Oversight’s lawsuit seeking documents from the tip line, Judge William T. Newman Jr. rejected the Office of the Governor’s efforts to dismiss the case but stayed the order requiring the governor to produce records pending appeal of the decision. 

“From the start, this tip line was a divisive ploy designed to score political points at the expense of Virginia teachers and students,” said American Oversight Executive Director Heather Sawyer. “After publicly touting the program, Gov. Youngkin has fought tooth and nail to maintain its secrecy and to prevent Virginians from learning the truth about the tip line’s purpose or from judging his administration’s actions. Gov. Youngkin should stop wasting taxpayer money fighting transparency and release these records to the public.”

In March 2022, American Oversight filed a public records request with Youngkin’s office seeking the release of records related to the governor’s “inherently divisive concepts” tip line. 

Youngkin issued an executive order in early 2022 banning the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts,” including critical race theory. The executive order did not define critical race theory, or CRT, an academic framework not formally taught in Virginia’s public K-12 school curricula. Later that month, Youngkin announced the launch of an email tip line ([email protected]) for parents to report any school officials teaching banned topics. 

In August 2022, American Oversight and the law firm Ballard Spahr sued Youngkin’s office following his refusal to turn over many of the documents requested by the watchdog group. Youngkin’s office has claimed that it does not have to explain how it conducts its searches for responsive records, and is withholding approximately 800 pages under a narrow exemption to Virginia’s public records law that protects the governor’s “working papers and correspondence.” The records requests had been filed by American Oversight’s executive director Heather Sawyer.

Wednesday’s hearing was set to resolve the governor’s request to dismiss American Oversight’s lawsuit. The court denied that request, granted American Oversight’s petition to require the governor’s office to provide a more detailed explanation of how it searched for records, and rejected the office’s blanket use of the “working papers and correspondence” exemption. The court’s order to produce records has been stayed to allow the governor’s office an opportunity to appeal. 

Although the tip line was shut down in November 2022, little is known about how Youngkin’s staff handled tips. In April, the Washington Post and a dozen other news outlets sued Youngkin’s office for the release of tip line submissions. Youngkin had denied their requests citing similar justifications to those he used in American Oversight’s lawsuit — claiming that documents related to the executive order could be withheld under the “working papers” exemption — before ultimately releasing a selection of records as part of a settlement with the news organizations. 

More information on American Oversight’s investigation into Youngkin’s tip line is available here.

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