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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Federal appeals court backs Navy's decision to withhold officer's suicide note from writer


By Davion Smith | Aug 7, 2018

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The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled the U.S.Navy was right to deny a book author's request to see a naval officer's personal suicide letter in a Freedom of Information Act case.

The author, Thomas Sikes, had brought his case before the appeals court claiming that the Navy "improperly" withheld documents he requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Sikes had originally brought his claim to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, which ruled in favor of the Navy.

Sikes claimed he is writing a book on the "pressures of holding military office" – a book he says focuses heavily on Adm. J.M. Boorda, former chief of naval operations, who committed suicide in 1996.

In investigating the suicide, the Navy discovered two suicide notes at Boorda's home along with a compilation of military-related notes on the back seat of his vehicle (backseat notes).

One suicide note was reportedly addressed to Boorda's naval subordinates and the other addressed to his wife. The letter to the admiral's subordinates was released to the public.

In August 2011, Sikes requested a copy Boorda's backseat notes, and after some resistance, the Navy released them.

In 2014, Sikes requested a number of other naval documents including a fresh copy of the backseat notes as well as the Navy's report on Boorda's suicide investigation, which comprises the suicide letters.

The Navy neglected to produce a fresh copy of the backseat notes to Sikes and further gave him a redacted version of the report on Boorda's suicide investigation.

The report never included the admiral's letter to his wife so Sikes brought the Navy to the district court; citing improper withholding of public information.

The court ruled in favor of the Navy but never addressed Sikes' claim that the Navy improperly withheld agency documents; contrary to the Freedom of Information Act.

When Sikes subsequently took the matter to the appeals court, the Navy fired back stating that it was within its rights not to present fresh copies of the backseat notes to Sikes because it already gave the author copies in 2011. The Navy further reasoned that the suicide letter addressed to the deceased admiral's wife was considerably personal and not intended for members of the public.

While addressing the claims of both parties, the appeals court said in its July 19 opinion that whether the Navy had provided a particular set of documents to Sikes on a previous occasion is irrelevant. The court said the Navy, as a government agency, should have refurnished Sikes with the documents, in accordance with the law.

As for the suicide letter to Boorda's widow, Sikes told the court of his suspicions that the letter contained critical evidence of the "pressures" of the role of a military officer. He said, as such, the interest of the public outweighs the interest of the Boorda family's personal privacy.

The appeals court disagreed.

"Even if we cannot completely rule out the possibility that the suicide note might reveal something of public importance, every indication is that a note of this type is of a predominantly and inescapably personal nature. In these circumstances, we need not remand to the district court to have it view the note in order to reject Sikes’s unfounded speculation about its value to the public. Sikes has not stated a plausible claim that the Navy’s withholding of it under Freedom of Information Act ... was improper," the appeals court said its ruling.

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