RCFP’s Local Legal Initiative powers investigative reporting and chips away at culture of secrecy in state, local government
Two years ago, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press launched its Local Legal Initiative, an ambitious effort to expand free legal support for local enterprise and investigative journalism. Through the initiative, started with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Reporters Committee hired media attorneys in five states: Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
These attorneys joined the Reporters Committee’s legal team to help local journalists and news organizations in their respective states defend their rights to gather and report the news, gain access to public records and court proceedings, and hold state and local government agencies and officials accountable. Working with Reporters Committee attorneys based in Washington, D.C., they were tasked with addressing the many serious legal challenges facing local journalists in their states, everything from excessive secrecy within law enforcement agencies to problems accessing public meetings and court proceedings.
While the work of the Local Legal Initiative attorneys has only just begun, it’s already clear that the program is having a substantial impact on the local journalism landscape. Thanks to our attorneys’ legal support:
- Two local journalists in Pennsylvania no longer face the threat of a frivolous lawsuit intended to silence their reporting on a state senator’s campaign;
- A reporter from a small, coastal newspaper in Oregon never had to bow to the demands of a subpoena for his reporting materials;
- An Indigenous affairs journalist in Oklahoma could report in depth about the police killing of a Muscogee Nation citizen;
- Journalists of color in Memphis now have regular access to media advisories about important city events and actions; and
- A freelance journalist received the records he needed — at a fraction of the cost he was originally charged — to report on homelessness in Boulder, Colorado.
Local Legal Initiative attorneys, representing more than 120 journalists and news organizations, have pried loose more than 5,500 pages of public records and more than 29 hours of police body camera footage. Those disclosures have powered investigative reporting that has revealed important details about a fire chief’s misuse of public funds, shed light on a massive taxpayer-funded economic development project and raised questions about prosecutors’ decision not to file charges against a police officer under scrutiny for his repeated use of excessive force.
Our Local Legal Initiative attorneys have also unsealed more than 3,300 pages of court records. Those records have helped the public better understand the criminal cases of two paramedics indicted for their role in the death of a 23-year-old man, piece together the checkered business record of a former U.S. Senator running for governor and remove the shroud of secrecy surrounding political appointments at the highest levels of state court.
The impact of these court victories has, at times, been broad in scope, helping shape laws and change city policies in favor of greater government transparency. But the Local Legal Initiative attorneys’ work has not been limited to the filings they have submitted to courts or the arguments they have made before judges. In fact, a large portion of their support for local journalism has happened outside of the courts — in letters to government officials, legal trainings with local newsrooms and one-on-one consultations through the Reporters Committee’s free legal hotline.
To date, our Local Legal Initiative attorneys have trained more than 700 journalists, media lawyers, students and others. Through these trainings, they have taught journalists everything from the basics of state public records laws to how to stay safe when covering protests, domestic terrorism and more. Our Local Legal Initiative attorneys have also successfully resolved more than 350 hotline calls, helping a total of more than 240 local journalists in their states understand recording laws, respond to government demands for their reporting materials, and develop strategies for obtaining data and documents from government agencies. These critical legal services have saved overworked and under-resourced journalists time and energy so that they can devote more of both to producing important enterprise and investigative journalism that matters to their communities.
Whether inside or outside the courtroom, the Local Legal Initiative’s work has focused on the most pressing issues of the day — issues that directly affect the daily lives of Americans: law enforcement accountability, elections, school oversight, COVID-19 and more.
Journalists in our five Local Legal Initiative states are no longer forced to fight for press freedom and the public’s right to know on their own. Their newsrooms, suffering from dwindling resources and shrinking staffs, may not have in-house counsel, but they have our attorneys to work tirelessly on their behalf to protect their rights and provide the legal support they need to produce groundbreaking journalism — all for free.
Despite launching the Local Legal Initiative during a global pandemic, our attorneys have managed to develop strong relationships in each of their states with dozens of journalists, news organizations and other stakeholders committed to government transparency and accountability. Their work has been praised in editorials and credited in our clients’ published investigations.
As journalists and news organizations told RCFP before the Local Legal Initiative was launched, government officials have long felt emboldened to hide their actions from the public and erect roadblocks in the path of the journalists responsible for holding them accountable, knowing that most newsrooms lack the legal muscle to fight back. Thanks to the Local Legal Initiative, however, that’s already starting to change.
Now, local journalists are the ones who feel emboldened — emboldened to sue a governor for access to records concerning the state’s coronavirus response, or petition a court to unseal records that could reveal details about how a school district handled a wrestling coach accused of child sex crimes.
With each lawsuit, our Local Legal Initiative attorneys are putting government officials on notice and chipping away at the pervasive culture of secrecy that has plagued local and state governments for decades.
They’re also helping the Reporters Committee — more than 50 years after its founding — make clear that it is a legal services organization that does more than just tackle cases that change federal laws and generate headlines in major national news outlets. While our attorneys will always continue to engage in those important national battles, the Local Legal Initiative has cemented our role as an organization that is also dedicated to the battles waged every day by journalists covering local school boards, police departments and city councils. The goal, in the end, is to take on cases that foster consequential reporting.
“The first two years of the Local Legal Initiative have been a huge success,” said Katie Townsend, the Reporters Committee’s deputy executive director and legal director. “We’ve done what we set out to do, which is to give local journalists and news organizations direct access to the pro bono legal support they need to pursue enterprise and investigative stories. And the result has been impactful, public interest journalism that has informed local communities and ultimately strengthened our democracy.”
It didn’t take long for the Local Legal Initiative to achieve its first major victory, one that set the tone for the program and quickly established the Reporters Committee’s commitment to government transparency at the local and state level.
Less than two months after becoming the first Local Legal Initiative attorney to join the Reporters Committee, Paul McAdoo filed the program’s first lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of 13 Tennessee news media and open government organizations. The lawsuit challenged the legality of a secret, middle-of-the-night email vote cast by members of a Tennessee agency responsible for enforcing the state’s campaign finance laws.
The overnight vote by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance concerned a settlement for tens of thousands of dollars in fines that the agency had levied against a state lawmaker for election finance violations. Members of the agency rushed to cast their votes via email so that the politician could meet a deadline for getting on the ballot. But as the media coalition’s lawsuit argued, the vote was a clear violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act. The public was only notified about the vote after it took place. And the Registry members’ emails in which they cast their votes were never made available to the public.
“From my perspective and the perspective of our clients, sitting idly by while the government makes a decision essentially about whether someone can be on the ballot, overnight, via email, is something we just couldn’t do,” McAdoo said. “If we don’t challenge that, it’s going to lead to more of that behavior.”
In October 2020, a Tennessee judge ruled that the Registry’s email vote did, indeed, break the law.
“We got a great decision, and it was really exciting to get support across the state from news organizations,” McAdoo said, noting that Open Meetings Act cases are rarely litigated these days, especially by news outlets. “The case was a really interesting test for the Local Legal Initiative, and it showed what the program can do.”
Unlike McAdoo’s first case, most of the Local Legal Initiative’s work on issues related to government transparency have dealt with access to public records. Our attorneys are currently litigating a wide range of public records cases in their respective states, but they have already won a number of key court victories in this area on behalf of journalists and news organizations seeking to shine a spotlight on the behavior of public officials.
In Pennsylvania, for example, Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paula Knudsen Burke successfully represented two news organizations — the York Daily Record and the York Dispatch — in their efforts to access a forensic audit of a local fire department so that they could provide the public with more detailed information related to felony charges filed against the department’s former chief. Journalists for both organizations reached out to Burke for legal support after their requests for the audit were denied by North York Borough, which took the news outlets to court to shield the records from the public.
A judge ultimately sided with the York Daily Record and the York Dispatch, ordering the audit to be released. Using those records, both papers reported that the audit concluded that there was a “high likelihood” that the fire department’s former chief misappropriated public funds.
While the release of the records fueled important reporting, the court victory also helped further one of the Local Legal Initiative’s key goals in Pennsylvania: to improve the state’s relatively new Right to Know Law. In this case, borough officials refused to release the audit because they claimed it was related to criminal and noncriminal investigations, an exemption to the public records law frequently cited by agencies when shielding records from the public.
“It’s a really problematic aspect of the Right to Know Law that is applied way too broadly, much too frequently,” Burke said. “Developing good case law like we did with the York cases is a helpful way to narrow the use of that exemption across the state.”
Local Legal Initiative attorneys haven’t only been focused on transparency issues within government departments and agencies. In three states, our attorneys have also filed public records lawsuits against local school districts, where the actions of administrators and school board members have an enormous impact on children, parents and their communities more broadly.
In Oklahoma, Local Legal Initiative attorney Kathryn E. Gardner has sued both the state’s largest university and one of its largest K-12 school districts. The lawsuit she filed against the University of Oklahoma on behalf of NonDoc, a nonprofit newsroom, seeks records concerning an internal review of sexual misconduct allegations against a former university president, as well as the misreporting of alumni donations. And the lawsuit she filed against Epic Charter Schools on behalf of Oklahoma Watch, another nonprofit newsroom, seeks email correspondence of the school system’s co-founder. Both cases are ongoing.
The Reporters Committee, along with the journalists and news organizations our attorneys represent, are pursuing these ongoing litigation matters to obtain the release of records that will help inform their communities about the leadership of their local schools. That’s exactly what happened when Local Legal Initiative Attorney Ellen Osoinach stepped in to provide legal support for Oregon’s Malheur Enterprise last year.
Stonewalled by officials at the Ontario School Board in Malheur County, Les Zaitz, the editor and publisher of the nonprofit Malheur Enterprise, contacted Osoinach to help his newspaper file a lawsuit against the district to obtain records that would shed light on discrimination allegations against several of its directors.
Zaitz had submitted three Oregon Open Records Law requests to the board for documents relating to discrimination allegations made by the superintendent and two principals. But the board denied the three requests. Despite having censured two directors at a public school board meeting for their misconduct toward the superintendent, the board did not publicly release any information about the investigations or how it handled them. It also did not release any information when the board censured one of the same directors again the following month for misconduct toward a school principal.
The lawsuit prompted the district to finally comply with its obligations under Oregon’ public records law. Starting last November, district officials began disclosing some of the records, including the complaints filed against the two school board members.
District officials released even more records in January. And, thanks to the records obtained after Osoinach sued on the Malheur Enterprise’s behalf, the paper was able to report an in-depth story detailing a longstanding feud between school district administrators and board members, officials responsible for leading a district of more than 2,300 students and 120 teachers.
“It was really important for the Local Legal Initiative to get involved because the story itself could not be told without the records,” Osoinach said. “It should send a message to every other school board in Oregon that when journalists push for school board records, they are backed up by legal help.”
Law enforcement accountability
The Reporters Committee has long been on the front lines of the battle for increased transparency and accountability for law enforcement agencies across the country. In New York, for example, our attorneys advocated for the repeal of a law preventing the disclosure of police disciplinary records.
In Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., our attorneys also have urged public officials to improve public access to police body camera videos. And in states across the country, they have filed legal briefs and written letters in support of efforts to access police disciplinary records, bodycam footage, and other law enforcement records.
With the launch of the Local Legal Initiative, the Reporters Committee has expanded this body of work. All five of our Local Legal Initiative attorneys have litigated cases concerning police transparency and accountability.
These issues were identified by the Reporters Committee as a key area of focus for the Local Legal Initiative after journalists and news organizations across the country highlighted law enforcement secrecy as among the biggest barriers to local reporting. And since the launch of the Local Legal Initiative — after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, as well as the resulting nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism — these issues have taken on even greater importance.
Last year, Rachael Johnson, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Colorado, successfully litigated back-to-back cases concerning the release of police bodycam videos. In separate rulings issued roughly two weeks apart, judges in Weld and Arapahoe counties ordered the disclosure of bodycam footage that led to the prosecution of police officers who allegedly placed people they were arresting in chokeholds. Johnson argued in both cases that recordings of the incidents should be publicly released under a relatively new Colorado law that requires the public disclosure of audio and video recordings documenting incidents in which officers are accused of misconduct.
Townsend, who leads the Reporters Committee’s legal team, says winning these two police bodycam cases during the law’s infancy is significant.
“This is a brand new law in Colorado, one that’s intended to expand public access to police body camera footage. It is important for the Local Legal Initiative to press what we view as the correct interpretation of that law through litigation on behalf of news organizations,” Townsend said.
“You need lawyers going to court, advocating on behalf of the press and public, to ensure that courts do not interpret this relatively new law the wrong way,” she added. “So these cases are an excellent example of the kind of important legal work that Reporters Committee attorneys have been doing in their respective Local Legal Initiative jurisdictions.”
While Johnson’s work on behalf of media coalitions helped establish good legal decisions in Colorado, McAdoo’s bodycam victory on behalf of an investigative journalist in Memphis, Tennessee, helped change a city policy.
Last February, McAdoo filed a public records lawsuit against the city of Memphis on behalf of journalist Marc Perrusquia. The reporter had spent months trying to obtain body camera footage from three separate incidents of alleged use of excessive force by city police officer Colin Berryhill. The Memphis Police Department had reviewed the video footage while conducting an administrative investigation into the incidents and concluded that the officer’s use of a Taser violated the police department’s excessive force and Taser policies. But the department never forwarded the case to the local district attorney to consider charges against the officer.
The city denied Perrusquia’s requests under the Tennessee Public Records Act, prompting the journalist to contact the Reporters Committee and eventually file suit against the city with McAdoo’s support. But it didn’t take an actual court order in their favor to get what they wanted.
After the lawsuit was filed, the city of Memphis simply agreed to turn over the requested records, which Perrusquia used to report on Berryhill’s repeated use of excessive force and police agencies’ troubling habit of heavily editing bodycam footage they release to the public. Perhaps even more importantly, the city issued a new written policy stating that all administrative investigations in which a Memphis police officer is found to have used excessive force will now be referred to the district attorney.
“At the end of the day, because of Marc’s reporting, which this lawsuit was a part of, the city changed the way it processes these cases and makes sure that excessive use of force cases now go to the DA if there’s a sustained finding,” McAdoo said. “And we got the video that Marc wanted, and he was able to report on officer Berryhill, who has since resigned from the Memphis Police Department.”
Journalists in Pennsylvania, Oregon and Oklahoma have also benefited from the Local Legal Initiative’s work on law enforcement transparency. In just the past year alone, our attorneys in each of those states have helped journalists and news organizations access police bodycam recordings. And like those in Colorado and Tennessee, some of these cases have been significant for reasons beyond the release of the specific recordings at issue — they set important precedent, too.
In Pennsylvania, Burke, along with attorney Terry Mutchler of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP, helped journalist Hurubie Meko obtain 16 hours of police bodycam footage showing protesters clash with law enforcement officers outside of the Lancaster City Bureau of Police in September 2020.
It marked the first time that an agency in the state released footage after an appeal under Pennsylvania’s Act 22. That law, passed in 2017, authorizes members of the public to request video or audio recordings created by law enforcement agencies.
“It was a groundbreaking case,” Burke said. “Our client went from having zero hours of tape all the way up to 16 hours.”
In Oregon, Osoinach successfully fought for the release of police bodycam footage documenting law enforcement’s response to a man experiencing a mental health crisis. Representing Eugene Weekly and reporter Ardy Tabrizian, Osoinach petitioned a local district attorney to disclose the footage after the city of Eugene issued a blanket rejection of their request for all police bodycam videos capturing police officers’ use of force against Landon Payne during an arrest in March 2020. Payne died less than 48 hours after his arrest.
Osoinach argued, among other things, that there is heightened public interest in bodycam videos that capture how police and crisis intervention units respond to people experiencing mental health crises, especially when incidents involve the use of force.
The district attorney largely agreed, ordering the release of the bodycam videos last August. But the case was also significant for another reason: It revealed that the city of Eugene does not have the proper technology to respond to public records requests for bodyworn camera videos. As Osoinach explained, the city had not previously released bodycam footage and therefore wasn’t aware that it didn’t have the ability to efficiently redact such footage when necessary.
“Both the city and the public got insight into the practical and logistical problems with providing body-worn camera videos here in Oregon,” Osoinach said. “As the city of Portland now considers adopting body-worn cameras, the experience of the city of Eugene is going to be really instructive in understanding that the promise of transparency is not going to be fulfilled if the city does not have the technology to efficiently and at a low cost produce these videos to the public.”
In Oklahoma, Gardner helped the Muskogee Phoenix obtain police bodycam recordings and a 911 call related to the shooting deaths of six people, five of them children. The newspaper sought Gardner’s legal support after the Muskogee County district attorney tried to block the release of the recordings, arguing the public records would compromise an ongoing investigation or prosecution.
Gardner successfully argued that the public had a right to access the bodycam video and 911 call. A judge ultimately ordered their release last year, making it possible for the Muskogee Phoenix to report important details about the suspect’s arrest and the larger circumstances of the alleged killings that shocked the local community.
But Gardner’s work on that case didn’t end there.
A couple of months after the judge ordered the release of the bodycam video and 911 call, a reporter for the Muskogee Phoenix (along with several other members of the press and the public) was blocked from accessing the preliminary hearing in the criminal case of Jarron Deajon Pridgeon, the man charged with the six alleged murders. The preliminary hearing is a critical stage of a criminal prosecution and presents an opportunity for the public to learn more about the state’s theory of the case.
Gardner quickly objected on the newspaper’s behalf and urged the court to open the proceeding to the public when it reconvened days later. The court denied the request and concluded the proceeding later that day. Gardner then requested that the court make transcripts available of the preliminary hearing that was improperly closed, and the court ordered them to be released to the public.
“This case is on the minds of so many people in this community and across the state of Oklahoma,” Gardner said. “Members of the press and public should not have to merely trust that justice is being served when they have a right to access these court proceedings. Openness enhances the public’s confidence in the process as well as the administration of the legal system.”
The Muskogee Phoenix’s struggle for court access is not unusual. Judges too often deny journalists access to courtrooms or keep judicial records under seal, leaving the public in the dark about how people are prosecuted and what information judges and juries rely on to reach important decisions — in some cases, matters of life and death.
In our Local Legal Initiative states, journalists and news organizations have repeatedly called on our attorneys to help unseal court records and improve access to court proceedings on their behalf. And thanks to their legal support, reporters have been able to shed light on both criminal and civil cases in the public interest.
Our Local Legal Initiative attorneys’ work in this area has perhaps never been as urgent as it was in the weeks after the 2020 presidential election, as former President Donald Trump’s campaign began challenging election results in key battleground states. Alongside the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, Burke sent a letter to federal court officials urging them to quickly resolve technological issues that made it difficult for members of the press and public to attend a virtual hearing in which the Trump campaign protested Pennsylvania’s election results.
The next day, a federal judge ordered the release of the audio recording of oral arguments in the case. The recording made it possible for the public to hear exactly what happened in the high-profile hearing.
In Colorado, a coalition of news organizations tapped Johnson for legal support after a judge agreed to seal all court records filed in the criminal cases of two paramedics related to the 2019 killing of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, whose death generated local and national media attention. A grand jury indicted the two paramedics, along with three police officers, after police violently arrested McClain and paramedics injected him with a powerful sedative.
Without access to the paramedics’ case files, journalists and the public would have been unable to cover their criminal cases in a comprehensive way. But after Johnson filed a motion to unseal the cases on behalf of the media coalition, the judge partially lifted the seal, opening the case files to the public.
“This is a really big case in Colorado. It has a lot of eyes on it,” Johnson said. “Many journalists throughout the community really felt that this was a story that needed to be told, and it couldn’t be told if the docket wasn’t open.”
In late 2020, Daniel Jackson, a reporter for Courthouse News Service, ran into a similar problem trying to obtain court records in Tennessee. He had been trying to review court documents that were filed years earlier as part of litigation involving Dollar General and the company’s former CEO David Perdue, a sitting U.S. Senator who was campaigning for reelection to retain his Georgia seat.
As Jackson explained in an article, he wanted the records so that Courthouse News Service could shine a spotlight on a pivotal period of Perdue’s business record — a record that Perdue frequently touted on the campaign trail. After he reached out for McAdoo’s help, our Local Legal Initiative attorney in Tennessee asked a state court to unseal more than 90 court documents, including depositions of Perdue.
Less than a month after McAdoo intervened, a judge ordered the release of a redacted version of Perdue’s deposition in 2008, which Jackson used, just days before voters went to the polls, to report details about Perdue’s time as CEO of Dollar General. But Jackson would eventually report an even more in-depth investigation a year later, after the court unsealed even more filings at a time when Perdue, who lost his Senate reelection bid, started to campaign for a different public office: governor of Georgia.
Using thousands of pages of court records McAdoo helped Courthouse News Service unseal, the investigation revealed previously hidden details about Perdue’s effort to sell Dollar General to a private equity firm without first consulting the company’s board members. Jackson’s reporting raised important, timely questions about the candidate’s record as a businessman, questions that would have likely never been asked had those legal filings remained secret.
Year 3 and beyond
As we begin year three of the Local Legal Initiative, our attorneys are as busy as they’ve ever been. Here is just a sampling of the more than two-dozen cases they are actively litigating on behalf of journalists and news organizations in their respective states:
- In Colorado, Johnson is helping two news organizations fight for access to data about how law enforcement officers in the state are certified, decertified and trained;
- In Oklahoma, Gardner is representing a nonprofit news outlet and one of its reporters before the state Supreme Court in their battle for records related to a man who died after being taken to a county jail instead of a state behavioral health facility;
- In Oregon, Osoinach is representing The Oregonian in its effort to access records concerning Google’s local water usage;
- In Pennsylvania, Burke is representing the Philadelphia Inquirer in the paper’s effort to access records related to Pennsylvania’s $70 billion pension system for public school employees; and
- In Tennessee, McAdoo is helping a local publisher and reporter in Nashville access reports by a consultant for the state of Tennessee related to COVID-19 and a government efficiency report.
The first two years of the Local Legal Initiative weren’t just important for the results our attorneys achieved on behalf of local journalists and the communities they serve. They were also important for what they taught us — about the unique needs of journalists in each state and how we can best address them as we move into year three and beyond.
Our Local Legal Initiative attorneys now have much deeper, stronger relationships with journalists, news organizations and other stakeholders than they had when they first started. Through those relationships, they have developed a greater appreciation and understanding of the legal and cultural differences of their journalism communities.
Moving forward, we plan to expand our outreach — to ensure that our Local Legal Initiative attorneys are as accessible to journalists in rural communities as they are to large newsrooms in major cities, and to ensure that historically neglected and underserved communities benefit from the legal services our attorneys provide to local journalists.
By building awareness of the Local Legal Initiative and helping more reporters of all kinds fight for greater government transparency and accountability, we will broaden our impact and make the programs in Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee part of the journalistic landscape in those states for years to come.
But our vision for the Local Legal Initiative is bigger than just five states. In 2019, journalists all across the country expressed a real need for attorneys who are deeply embedded in their communities and committed to supporting local journalism. We must meet this need.
That’s why we’re not only actively fundraising to sustain our work in these five states, but to also expand the Local Legal Initiative to more jurisdictions. By growing our targeted, on-the-ground legal services, we will help protect the rights of more journalists, fuel more enterprise and investigative journalism, and help citizens better understand the communities in which they live.
In the end, our democracy will be better for it.
Data included in this report were compiled by Strategic Initiatives Manager Josh Moore, Data Specialist Brittany Lower, as well as each of the Local Legal Initiative attorneys.