The Local Legal Initiative provides local news organizations with the direct legal services they need to pursue enterprise and investigative stories in their communities.
Starting in 2020, Reporters Committee attorneys will be based in five states — Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, 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 states were selected from more than 45 submissions the Reporters Committee received from over 30 states, regions and territories nationwide as part of a proposal process conducted last year after the announcement of a generous investment by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
While the proposals described impressive enterprise and investigative journalism being done at all types of news organizations, they painted a picture of important local reporting being routinely stymied, especially by a lack of access to public records and public meetings. Here are a few of the reasons why the Reporters Committee ultimately selected Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee to launch this initiative:
Unlike many jurisdictions, Colorado does not have an administrative appeals process or ombuds office, meaning public records requesters interested in challenging a denial must do so in court. In addition to the substantial legal need in Colorado, the state has many new and innovative reporting partnerships. And a new building in downtown Denver will soon house a number of diverse news organizations, including the Associated Press, several nonprofit newsrooms and the Colorado Media Project.
As Oklahoma news organizations find it more difficult to wage legal battles for access to government information, journalists in the state say public officials have become increasingly resistant to news media demands that they comply with open records and open meeting laws. The state also offers an opportunity to work with the Native American Journalists Association on barriers to reporting on and within Oklahoma’s 39 federally recognized tribes.
Collaboration and content sharing among news organizations in Oregon is on the rise. There has also been a wave of enthusiasm for government transparency work after the state’s first Public Records Advocate resigned, citing political interference from the governor’s office. Before resigning, the official produced reports on the limitations on access to government information, which could serve as a valuable roadmap for an LLI attorney in the state.
Pennsylvania is a large and diverse state, home to many collaborations, innovative journalistic endeavors and strong investigative reporting. With the state’s Right to Know Law only a decade old, there is substantial opportunity to create favorable case law for transparency, as well as to address the problems in the law.
Tennessee offers strong partner support at the statewide level, as well as the opportunity to work with nonprofit and nontraditional news organizations focused on under-served populations in Memphis. There are many legal challenges facing local reporting in the state, including excessive delays in access to public records, challenges in access to body camera video and overly broad applications of law enforcement exemptions.
Frequently Asked Questions
How is the Local Legal Initiative funded?
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 seeking further philanthropic support to match the Knight Foundation’s investment in order to sustain the program beyond our two-year commitment in each jurisdiction.
Who will the attorneys report to/be employed by?
Attorneys will be Reporters Committee employees and fully integrated into the organization’s existing legal team.
Who will make decisions about which matters attorneys become involved in?
All Reporters Committee attorneys are guided by specific litigation priorities and internal processes. Attorneys will work with partner organizations and news media entities in their jurisdiction to identify needs and opportunities.
What kind of work will these attorneys do?
These attorneys will be an extension of the legal work Reporters Committee attorneys already perform, but focused on a specific jurisdiction. The type of work will vary based on the needs of each state, but it could include public records and court access litigation, training and providing information through the Reporters Committee’s hotline.