Sunshine Week brings focus to public record lawsuits

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San José Spotlight City Hall reporter Jana Kadah conducts a phone interview

San José Spotlight City Hall reporter Jana Kadah conducts a phone interview. The Spotlight was awarded $500,000 in attorneys fees in its public records lawsuit against the California city after a judge determined the records were wrongly withheld.


Public records and freedom of information laws are fundamental for government transparency. But when journalists fight for access to wrongfully withheld records at the state and local level, the public is paying the price, according to a new article published by our U.S. Press Freedom Tracker for Sunshine Week.

The Tracker’s senior reporter, Stephanie Sugars, found that over the past year alone, local governments have paid journalists more than $1.6 million in attorneys fees — all of which was financed by taxpayers — following public records lawsuits.

The bulk of these payments were made to newsrooms in California, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Nevada after journalists were denied access to records ranging from police misconduct investigations to mayoral communications.

Map of U.S. states with fee shifting for public records lawsuits

Fewer than half of states have mandated fee-shifting, or the awarding of attorneys fees and costs to the prevailing party. Another 26 have optional fee-shifting or mandate it in circumstances when agencies act in bad faith or in violation of an administrative advisory.

Source: National Freedom of Information Coalition (2020)

After the Las Vegas Review-Journal received $620,000 in payments in February 2024, Ben Lipman, an attorney for the newspaper, said, “Reimbursement for attorneys’ fees is a vitally important part of the public records law, because without it, most people could not afford to take the government and all its lawyers to court.”

It is taxpayers, however, that are forced to foot the bill, while officials can remain unscathed, according to Ramona Giwargis, the co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit newsroom San José Spotlight. The Spotlight received $500,000 in November 2023 after a California county judge ruled that the former mayor used private emails and text messages for city business in order to shield the communications from disclosure.

“Even though they keep getting sued, it doesn’t stop or change anything. For the city, it’s just a blip on the radar,” Giwargis told the Tracker. “What does it take? If not legal action, then what remedies do we have to hold them accountable?”

To read more of the Tracker’s coverage of select, egregious records denials exposed by lawsuits against state agencies, use the #public records tag.

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