As we mark World Press Freedom Day today and celebrate the important role of a free press throughout the world, we’re also looking back at what Reporters Committee attorneys have done so far this year to advance this fundamental pillar of our democracy in the U.S.
The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day — “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law” — serves as a reminder that our legal environment and the independence of our judiciary play an essential role in protecting and upholding press freedom.
Here’s what the Reporters Committee has been up to in 2018 to defend the First Amendment and fight for the newsgathering rights of journalists in U.S. courts:
Protecting the right to access public records
Reporters Committee attorneys represented two freelance journalists in a lawsuit against the City of Charlottesville and two Virginia agencies for access to the police safety and operations plans for the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally that turned violent. The documents released as a result of the lawsuit showed that law enforcement “didn’t follow written orders to intervene in outbreaks of violence” during the rally.
Reporters Committee attorneys sued the Department of Commerce on behalf of Quartz reporter David Yanofsky after the agency tried to charge him more than $174,000 for government data he had requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The court agreed, and David will now be able to access these records.
In Oklahoma, Reporters Committee attorneys fought on behalf of journalist Ziva Branstetter and Tulsa World in a lawsuit for records related to a botched execution in 2014. In the first ruling of its kind in the state, a judge held that the Governor’s Office and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) violated the state’s Open Records Act by failing to provide timely access to records — making clear that government officials can’t simply delay responding to public records requests indefinitely to shield their actions from scrutiny.
After they failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request, Reporters Committee attorneys sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security for records about their demand that Twitter turn over information about the individuals behind the anonymous Twitter account @ALT_uscis. Records released as a result of the lawsuit are helping to shed light on how and why CBP sought to “unmask” an anonymous critic of the government — which could chill speech on important issues.
Defending the right to publish
When a Nevada judge barred the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Associated Press from reporting on an anonymized autopsy record for a Las Vegas shooting victim, the Reporters Committee and Nevada Press Association argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that the order was an unconstitutional prior restraint on publication. The Nevada Supreme Court agreed and upheld the publications’ First Amendment rights to access and report on the autopsy record.
Reporters Committee attorneys also defended journalist José Gallego in a defamation lawsuit he faced — and won — after he reported on corruption in the Embassy of Spain in Washington, D.C. The judge’s ruling in the case found that José’s reporting was “objectively verifiable and true.”
Shining a light on the judicial system
More than two years after a Chicago police officer was charged with murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the public will finally have access to a complete court docket in one of the city’s most high-profile criminal cases. The Reporters Committee and seven news organizations intervened in the criminal prosecution of officer Jason Van Dyke to secure the release of a public docket sheet and argue that all documents filed in the case, most of which are sealed, should be made public.
In North Carolina, Reporters Committee attorneys filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of The Fayetteville Observer’s effort to unseal a completely sealed civil case involving a prominent local businessman’s settlement of sexual abuse allegations. The docket, names of both parties and their lawyers, and sealing orders are all secret in the case, Doe v. Doe.
Amid these legal victories, many of the challenges journalists face as they work to inform the public and hold those in power accountable still persist. Our report on the state of press freedom in the U.S., based on 2017 data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, showed that journalists continue to face verbal attacks, physical assaults, arrest, seizures and searches of their equipment, and more — simply for doing their jobs.
As we celebrate the importance of press freedom, we also look ahead to the work that must continue to be done to ensure that journalists have access to the information they need to report on issues of public importance without fear of lawsuits, threats, or other intimidation.