Media organizations are calling for transparency around a settlement agreement reached following an alleged police-involved shooting in Louisiana.
In 2014, Victor White III suffered a fatal gunshot wound while in the custody of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office. He was handcuffed in the backseat of a patrol car when the shot was fired; the IPSO claimed White shot himself.
White’s daughter, a minor, filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office and two other law enforcement officers. The parties agreed to a settlement, but the terms — including the amount awarded, which is paid using tax dollars — have been sealed.
Louisiana newspaper The Advocate and television news station KATC‘s motion to unseal the agreement was denied by the district court in 2018. The news outlets appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and a media coalition are supporting the appeal, arguing the First Amendment and common law require the terms of the settlement agreement be made public. The public has an interest in knowing the settlement terms, in particular, because the settlement funds come from tax dollars.
“The public has a right to know how taxpayer dollars are being used to settle civil disputes involving the government,” the media coalition noted in the brief. “[They have] a vital and legitimate interest in monitoring expenditures of taxpayer money and whether justice is ultimately served, especially when the recipient of settlement funds is a minor.”
Public access to court records is a necessary part of judicial transparency, and a lack of access can impact the public’s perception of the legal system. The media coalition argued the public’s right to information about what the courts are doing is essential to maintaining trust in the judiciary.
“In addition to promoting fair [rulings] through public accountability, openness provides the public with the information it needs to remain confident in the justice system,” the coalition wrote. “In order for the judicial branch to function effectively in a system of democratic self-government, the people must be given an opportunity to observe its activities.”