Local Legal Initiative
The Local Legal Initiative provides local news organizations with the direct legal services they need to pursue enterprise and investigative stories in their communities.
Reporters Committee attorneys are currently based in four states — Colorado, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee — to help local journalists and news organizations 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. The Reporters Committee recently expanded the Local Legal Initiative to Indiana and is currently seeking to hire an attorney to provide pro bono legal support to local journalists in the state. The Local Legal Initiative was also active in Oregon through 2022.
The Local Legal Initiative is partially funded by a $10 million investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of the foundation’s pledge to double its commitment to strengthening local journalism. The Reporters Committee and our partners are actively seeking further philanthropic support to sustain and grow the program.
In 2022, the Reporters Committee released a report on the early success of the Local Legal Initiative in its first two years. Now in its fifth year, the Local Legal Initiative continues to have a tremendous impact in Colorado, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, empowering news organizations in those states to tell stories that matter in their communities — about everything from public health and school safety to government transparency and law enforcement accountability. We are excited to continue to build on those successes in Indiana, where Reporters Committee attorneys have long supported local journalists and news organizations facing legal challenges. Read on for highlights of our work in each state.
In Colorado, the Reporters Committee, joined by a coalition of nine local news organizations, supported The Denver Gazette in its successful fight against an unconstitutional prior restraint that barred the newspaper from reporting on records a court staffer inadvertently disclosed about a criminal case involving a police officer charged in connection with the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain.
Rachael Johnson, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney for Colorado, also assisted local news outlets in their efforts to obtain government records, including the recording and meeting minutes of an unlawful executive session related to the censure of a city council member.
And on behalf of the editor of Colorado’s Crested Butte News, she appealed a district court decision holding that a library could shield the names of people who seek to ban books from a public library.
In 2023, the Reporters Committee expanded the Local Legal Initiative to Indiana and will soon hire an attorney to provide direct pro bono legal support to local journalists and news organizations across the state.
“Access to legal resources is a vital part of the infrastructure that underpins thriving local journalism, and we are excited to grow our ability to help Indiana journalists defend their newsgathering rights, access public records and court proceedings, and hold public officials accountable,” said Katie Townsend, deputy executive director and legal director for the Reporters Committee.
The Hoosier State Press Association played a pivotal role in bringing the Local Legal Initiative to Indiana, and Lumina Foundation provided anchor support for the program in the state.
The addition of an Indiana Local Legal Initiative attorney will allow the Reporters Committee to expand upon its attorneys’ longtime work in the state advocating for press freedom and providing pro bono legal support to local journalists. Last year, for example, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of six journalism and news organizations filed a federal lawsuit to block the enforcement of an Indiana law that makes it a crime to approach within 25 feet of a police officer after being told to withdraw. And in 2018, Reporters Committee attorneys helped WTHR-TV sue a local school district to access public records concerning the suspension of a high school football coach. That lawsuit ultimately resulted in a landmark Indiana Supreme Court decision holding that agencies must provide specific facts explaining why a public employee is suspended, fired, or otherwise disciplined — a ruling that increases transparency across the state.
In Oklahoma, Local Legal Initiative Attorney Kathryn E. Gardner sued a state agency on behalf of Oklahoma Watch to obtain records about applications for federal COVID-19 relief funds. Using records obtained through the litigation, the nonprofit news outlet published an investigation revealing which agencies, businesses, and nonprofits requested billions of dollars in pandemic relief aid and what they wanted to fund.
Gardner also continued to provide critical support to journalists covering issues impacting Indigenous communities in Oklahoma. She represented the Osage News in its successful effort to access records of payments made by the Osage Nation Treasury Department to a Tulsa-based law firm.
And more recently, she filed a public records lawsuit against Oklahoma’s governor and attorney general on behalf of journalist and author Rebecca Nagle seeking emails and other communications between current and former public officials related to a historic U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning Native American land and Indigenous rights.
In Oregon, former Local Legal Initiative Attorney Ellen Osoinach helped a freelance journalist fend off a subpoena forcing her to testify about one of her sources. And she helped The Oregonian obtain records about how much water Google uses to cool its data centers in the city of the Dalles.
Osoinach and the Reporters Committee also celebrated the news that a judge dismissed all charges against April Fonseca Ehrlich — an outcome RCFP advocated for after the public radio journalist was arrested in 2020 while covering the police removal of houseless campers from a public park.
And in a high-profile gender-discrimination case, a federal judge in Oregon ordered Nike to unseal court records that shielded information about Nike’s pay practices. The order came after Osoinach intervened on behalf of three news organizations to bring transparency to the class action case brought by female Nike employees.
In Pennsylvania, Reporters Committee attorneys helped local newsrooms reach legal settlements that improved public access to criminal court records and forced a township to train its employees on the government’s obligations under the state’s public records law.
Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paula Knudsen Burke also represented local journalists and news outlets in a number of public records lawsuits, including one case that pried loose records related to Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program.
In many cases, newsrooms represented by Burke turned legal victories into investigative stories. For example, the nonprofit Billy Penn used records obtained through litigation to expose the Philadelphia’s public transit agency’s failure to track incidents of sexual assault and harassment targeting its employees. And the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed how executives of Pennsylvania’s largest public pension fund pushed back against a whistleblower who raised serious concerns about the fund’s finances.
In Tennessee, state lawmakers passed a bill strengthening campaign finance and ethics rules — a move that appeared to be an outgrowth of an open meetings lawsuit in which Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paul McAdoo represented a group of Tennessee news media and open government organizations.
McAdoo continued to provide legal support for the law enforcement accountability reporting of investigative journalist Marc Perrusquia. In April, he sued the city of Memphis for access to records documenting how the Memphis Police Department supports officers who have been subject to disciplinary proceedings. And in June, he sued the Shelby County sheriff for access to video footage capturing a Memphis police officer’s use of excessive force.
Through the Reporters Committee’s free Legal Hotline, McAdoo also helped the nonprofit Nashville Banner obtain billing records that revealed why taxpayers paid nearly $900,000 for a local election commission to litigate an anti-tax charter amendment that never even made it onto the ballot.