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CJR sues to disclose N.Y. governor's office's e-mail messages

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Columbia Journalism Review today filed suit to compel New York state to release several weeks’ worth of e-mail messages…

The Columbia Journalism Review today filed suit to compel New York state to release several weeks’ worth of e-mail messages among Gov. David Paterson’s former director of communications, Peter Kaufmann, Kaufmann's deputy press secretary, Melissa Shorenstein, and the media.

The governor’s office on April 29 refused to reveal the roughly 2,000 e-mail messages responsive to CJR’s freedom of information request, claiming that those public records were exempt by law – citing the New York shield law, which provides a state reporter's privilege.

Clint Hendler, a CJR reporter, had previously requested the government e-mail messages under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).  Kaufmann resigned on March 4, 2010 citing issues of “integrity” following a political dust-up in which reporters were investigating accusations that an aide to Gov. Paterson, David Johnson, was involved in a domestic violence dispute. Shorenstein resigned two weeks later.

While the governor's office cited the New York shield law as a basis for withholding information, state shield laws in fact exist to ensure the flow of news and information to the public and to protect an independent press; indeed, the proposed federal shield legislation is entitled the “Free Flow of Information Act.” This particular privilege from producing documents or testifying is referred to as the “reporter’s privilege” because it belongs to a reporter to assert, not to the government as a means to prevent it from disclosing public information.

The denial also cited portions of “commercially sensitive” information in the messages as additional grounds for denial.

CJR wrote that it is suing to “compel New York state to properly fulfill its duties under the state’s Freedom of Information Law — duties we believe the state is speciously and cynically trying to shirk by citing inapplicable exemptions and New York’s shield law.”

Columbia Journalism Review is being represented pro bono by the New York law firm of Friedman & Wittenstein.