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Pendulum swings

From the Winter 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. Maybe -- just maybe -- the…

From the Winter 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

Maybe — just maybe — the pendulum has started to swing back.

The Reporters Committee has spent considerable time over the past five years documenting the decline in government openness and bemoaning what that means for democracy.

Using national security as the all-purpose justification, meetings and records have been closed to public scrutiny, courtrooms have been closed and the federal government has even been caught eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without a warrant. And most citizens just sat there and let it happen.

But I recently heard about a study the American Society of Newspaper Editors commissioned of the Scripps Survey Research Center in recognition of Sunshine Week (March 10-17). It leads me to wonder whether the public is starting to catch on.

The percentage of Americans who believe the federal government is somewhat or very open has dropped from 33 percent last year to 25 percent this year. The percentage of people who say the federal government is somewhat or very secretive has grown from 62 percent last year to 69 percent this year.

Also of note, the public, by a 2-1 margin, wants federal officials to obtain search warrants before tapping telephones or opening mail. And, the public overwhelmingly suspects that the government has violated the Fourth Amendment in making these searches without warrants. (To read more about the study, go to www.asne.org.)

While I choose to be optimistic about the results of the ASNE/Scripps study, our own workload at the Reporters Committee reminds me there's a long way to go to reclaim access to many records state, local and federal governments have closed down in recent years due largely to national security and privacy concerns.

Here are just a few examples:

FOI Service Center Director Loren Cochran and legal fellow Nathan Winegar recently wrote an amicus curiae brief to the Arizona Supreme Court in support of Phoenix Newspapers, publisher of The Arizona Republic. It seems that former Pinal County Manager Stanley Griffis was suspended after being accused of using public funds to purchase $21,000 worth of sniper rifles, ammunition and other related gear without approval. During his suspension, he went on a hunting safari in Africa. Eventually, sheriff's deputies seized the items from Griffis' home.

Questions were raised about whether he purchased the hunting gear and planned his trip on county time using county computers, so Phoenix Newspapers wanted 90 of Griffis' e-mails related to the investigation. Griffis said the e-mail messages were not public records because they reflected his personal shopping and personal travel planning. The Arizona Court of Appeals agreed with him. Thankfully, the newspaper is taking this head-scratcher of a case to the state Supreme Court.

Another brief we're working on involves the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's efforts to investigate the firing of a Wisconsin teacher. Robert Zellner says the newspaper should not have access to the pornographic images on his computer hard drive from the high school in Cedarburg where he used to teach.

The reason? They're copyrighted. Not by Zellner, mind you. But the Wisconsin Supreme Court will decide whether the teacher can invoke someone else's copyright to thwart the state's open records law.

And don't miss Winegar's story in this edition of The News Media & The Law about a California Supreme Court decision last August that is allowing the Los Angeles police disciplinary board to conduct secret hearings for officers charged with serious misconduct.

Just another week fighting for the public's right to know.

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Publisher's note: We are delighted to publish this entire edition of The News Media & The Law in color for the first time. We hope this reflects the Reporters Committee's commitment to excellence in reporting news and analysis of important issues affecting journalists. Special thanks to editor Gregg Leslie and managing editor Rani Gupta for their hard work in executing the makeover.