Monday, March 16, 2020

For first time since 2009, public-records suits from outside the news media outnumber those from the news media

For the first time since 2009, public-records lawsuits by plaintiffs from outside the news media outnumber those from news media, according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition's biennial open government survey. The news comes, fittingly, on the second day of Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and the role of the news media in ensuring it.

News media have been less interested or able to pursue open-records litigation in recent years, mostly due to lack of money and resources and a decline in the number of investigative reporters who often require legal action to gain access to information, according to the NFOIC.

Many public entities refuse news-media requests for information, drag their feet, or refuse to answer at all, increasingly hoping that the requesters can't afford to file suit. Respondents to the NFOIC survey consistently said that such stonewalling was the biggest obstacle they faced in acquiring public information. Many were also frustrated because they believed that there were few penalties for public officials who violate open-records or open-meeting laws.

Daniel Bevarly, NFOIC's executive director, "cited growing efforts to assist local news organizations with financial and in-kind backing to pursue lawsuits is a response to this trend," according to the press release. "The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Legal Initiative and the Legal Clinic Fund from the Democracy Fund are recent examples."

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