Legal firepower to support journalists

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    Terri Lynn Oldham House

    Too many times, inflated egos of our elected officials have prevailed over moral sense, basic ethics and duty to follow the law.
    Coloradans received a huge gift last week when the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national organization that works to protect journalists’ First Amendment and newsgathering rights, announced that it will hire a pro bono attorney in Colorado to support investigative journalism.
    Our citizens are the ones who will truly benefit from the Reporters Committee’s effort to provide direct legal services to more journalists at the local level.
    This effort will give The SUN staff some extra legal firepower to allow us to fight wrongful denials of access to public records and proceedings.
    We hope this legal assistance will also help to educate our local elected officials when it comes to Colorado’s Open Meetings Law.
    Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee said, “At a time when important local reporting is routinely stymied, we stand ready to help journalists and news organizations overcome the legal roadblocks they too often face.”
    Too many times, The SUN has found our elected leaders making decisions behind closed doors in executive session.
    Too many times, The SUN has been wrongfully denied access to pubic documents that belong to the citizens of this community.
    Too many times, legal counsel has advised local boards to blatantly disregard Colorado’s Open Meetings Law.
    Too many times, local boards and their leaders have demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the public they are in the position of serving by abusing their seemingly unlimited availability of legal counsel to challenge the public’s right to access information, at the expense of that same public.
    “Colorado journalists face a number of legal issues, including high fees for obtaining public records and the misuse of exceptions and exclusions in the public records law to deny requests,” reads a Reporters Committee statement on why Colorado was selected.
    Too many times, The SUN’s only choice is going to court.
    Unfortunately, legal battles to obtain executive session recordings and documents can take years and the financial burden to fight those battles isn’t one your small-town community newspaper can bear. We struggle to just to keep the lights on, pay staff and stay in business with the economic changes that have drastically affected our industry.
    Colorado does not have an administrative appeals process or an ombudsman to handle open-government disputes, which would help to relieve our financial burden.
    The SUN is appreciative of the efforts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC) that applied for the program with the Colorado Press Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association and the Colorado Media Project.
    In its application, the CFOIC identified several barriers to access records across the state: “the often-high cost of obtaining public records; the frequent withholding of law enforcement body-camera footage; the deletion of emails and other electronic public records; questionable denials purportedly based on exclusions in CORA; the sealing and suppression of court records; claims that public employees’ text messages discussing public business aren’t public records; public officials making decisions behind closed doors; and public officials meeting illegally via emails and texts.”
    If journalists can’t get access to public records, government meetings and court proceedings, Coloradans are deprived of the information they need to be engaged in their communities and hold their institutions accountable, explained CFOIC’s Jeffrey Roberts.
    “It’s not enough to have First Amendment protections on paper. Freedom of the press needs to be defended on the ground, where local journalists are doing the work of holding the powerful to account,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president. “This initiative will help protect communities’ access to the strong local reporting that is vital in a democracy.”