The public pays for records lawsuits

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San José Spotlight City Hall reporter Jana Kadah conducts a phone interview. (Courtesy of Ramona Giwargis)

Who pays for public records lawsuits? The public

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. Over the past year alone, local governments have paid journalists at least $1.6 million in attorneys fees — all of which was financed by taxpayers — following public records lawsuits.

Read more on the Tracker’s website about the high costs caused by pointless fights against records requests, as well as proposed legislation in various states that might make it harder for the public to access public records. Or, listen to a discussion of these issues on X with Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) Advocacy Director Seth Stern, Tracker Senior Reporter Stephanie Sugars, and the director of the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Project, David Cuillier.

To explore more of the Tracker’s coverage of select, egregious records denials exposed by lawsuits against state agencies, search the incident database using the #public records tag.

Texas senators should support the PRESS Act

The PRESS Act — the federal shield bill that passed the House this year — is the most important First Amendment legislation in modern history.

It’s currently pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes both senators representing Texas, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

FPF’s Seth Stern joined First Amendment lawyer Gene Schaerr of Protect The 1st to write an op-ed for The Dallas Morning News about why Cornyn and Cruz should help get the PRESS Act across the finish line. Both Cruz and Cornyn have spoken out against anti-press measures, Stern and Schaerr explain, making their support for the PRESS Act a “no-brainer.”

But the PRESS Act still needs more support to go the distance, especially from Republican committee members. If you’re in Texas, consider contacting Sen. Cruz and Sen. Cornyn to express your support for the legislation. Or reach out to your senator, if you’re in one of these dozen-and-a-half states.

Read the full op-ed here.

Burke charges are a ‘hack’ job

We’ve written before about how the indictment of journalist Tim Burke — based on his online newsgathering exposing outtakes from Tucker Carlson’s interview with Ye, formerly known as Kanye West — raises disturbing questions about just how much the government will stretch a federal hacking law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, to criminalize journalism.

Now, writing in Ars Technica, FPF Deputy Director of Advocacy Caitlin Vogus and ACLU Surveillance and Cybersecurity Counsel Jennifer Stisa Granick unpack these charges, and the dangers they pose to journalists.

“Journalists need never ask corporations for permission to investigate or embarrass them, and the law shouldn’t encourage or force them to,” Vogus and Granick write. “Just because someone doesn’t like what a reporter does online doesn’t mean that it’s without authorization and that what he did is therefore a crime.”

Read the full op-ed here.

The media are getting easier to push around

“Reporters and news organizations in hundreds of communities have faced interference, intimidation, and harassment from local officials in recent years,” writes Paul Farhi in The Atlantic this week, citing data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Case in point: the arrest and prosecution of a local publisher and reporter in Atmore, Alabama. They’re charged with felonies for simply publishing a story, based on an anonymous leak, revealing a grand jury investigation into possible financial fraud by the local school system.

Farhi links this and other abuses to decreased public and financial support for the news industry, as well as “the hostile climate that surrounds reporting these days.”

“Local authorities seem to have gotten the message that they can get away with this,” FPF Executive Director Trevor Timm told Farhi, who also cites FPF’s coverage of the alarming increase in prior restraints against the press.

Read the full article here.

What we’re reading

Israeli tank strike killed 'clearly identifiable' Reuters reporter - UN report. A United Nations investigation has confirmed what civil society and news organizations have already shown: Israel violated international law when it killed Reuters reporter Issam Abdallah and wounded six other journalists in Lebanon last year. Israel must ensure those responsible for Abdallah’s death and other attacks on journalists are held responsible and that killings of journalists stop.

ACLU Urges Senate to Reject TikTok Ban Bill Following House Passage. Banning TikTok would be censorship. Period. Journalists and media outlets use the platform to share news stories, and millions of Americans use it to consume news. Censoring communications from foreign countries — let alone entire platforms — is plainly unconstitutional. That’s why FPF joined the ACLU and other free speech and civil liberties organizations in a letter urging Congress to reject the TikTok ban bill. You can also tell Congress to stop the TikTok ban.

Lawmakers approve controversial bill to limit public access to government records. The New Jersey legislature is fast-tracking a bill that would gut the state’s Open Public Records Act, despite opposition from everyone under the sun: residents, journalists, civil liberties advocates, activists, voting watchdogs, lawyers, and even some state officials. It’s painfully ironic and wrong that New Jersey lawmakers are taking this step during Sunshine Week. New Jersey should not pass this bill.

NYC Mayor Eric Adams says that if police radio transmissions aren’t encrypted, the terrorists will win. “No one involved in this shift towards encrypted NYPD communications has ever bothered to recognize the cognitive dissonance that says protecting private people’s communications is a net loss for society while protecting cop communications is a net gain.” That’s exactly right. Police in New York City and elsewhere shouldn’t dodge journalists and public accountability by encrypting police radio.

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‘Spy draft’ bill threatens press freedom

The Senate is dangerously close to passing a bill that would allow intelligence agencies to essentially “institute a spy draft” and order everyone from dentists to plumbers to surveil their patients and customers’ communications. The RISAA would also allow the government to order commercial landlords who rent space to media outlets, or contractors who service newsrooms, to help it spy on American journalists’ communications with foreign sources.

Stop this horrifying mass surveillance bill

The House has slipped a horrifying amendment into its bill extending intelligence agencies’ already expansive spying powers under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Anyone who values press freedom — or their own freedom — needs to tell their senators TODAY to VOTE NO on the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act, or RISAA, by calling 202-899-8938.

‘Imperative’ to pass PRESS Act

Veteran journalist Catherine Herridge threw her full support behind the PRESS Act, the federal bill to put an end to surveillance and subpoenas to force journalists to out their sources, during Congressional testimony on April 11, 2024.