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WXIA-TV v. Cobb County Sheriff

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  1. Freedom of Information

Court: Superior Court of Cobb County, Georgia

Date Filed: Oct. 9, 2020

Update: On Oct. 14, Judge A. Gregory Poole ruled that the defendants must release the requested records that were previously disclosed to the public. The remainder of the requested records can be withheld until a final ruling from the court. 

Background: WXIA-TV filed a lawsuit against Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, his attorney and the county sheriff’s public records custodian for denying a Georgia Open Records Act request seeking the case files of three inmates who died at Cobb County Adult Detention Center. The sheriff denied the request under the “pending investigations” exemption because he claimed that a law firm led by an attorney who is a friend and personal attorney to the sheriff is leading a review of the deaths.

WXIA asked the Superior Court of Cobb County, Georgia, to order the sheriff to turn over the requested documents, arguing that the TV station will be irreparably harmed if they are not made immediately available. The station noted in a court filing that time is particularly important because WXIA’s reporting concerns the conduct of a corrections officer who is up for re-election in November.

Our Position: The court should order the Cobb County sheriff to release the records requested by WXIA.

  • Broad disclosure of public records and narrow construction of any exemptions are cornerstones of freedom of information laws.
  • The requested records cannot be withheld because they have already been publicly disclosed.
  • Access to the records at issue will contribute to important reporting in the public interest.

The Reporters Committee and the media organizations were represented by Clare Norins from the University of Georgia First Amendment Clinic.

Quote: “[P]ublic access to the case files at issue will enable the news media to report important information about the treatment of individuals detained by local law enforcement, allow the public to oversee the workings of government, and foster accountability of government officials — paramount goals of the Open Records Act.”

Related: In January 2018, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and three media organizations submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Georgia Supreme Court urging it to reverse a lower court decision that would make it mandatory for state agencies to withhold from public disclosure any record that falls under an exemption to the Georgia Open Records Act.