News organizations in Colorado will soon get some extra legal firepower to fight wrongful denials of access to government records and proceedings.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national organization that works to protect journalists’ First Amendment and news-gathering rights, announced Tuesday it will hire and place a pro bono attorney in Colorado for at least two years to support local enterprise and investigative journalism.
Colorado is one of five states chosen out of 50 applications for the Local Legal Initiative, which is partially funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition applied for the program with the Colorado Press Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association and the Colorado Media Project.
Because of reduced resources, local news outlets in Colorado and throughout the country are waging far fewer legal battles than in the past. If journalists can’t get access to public records, government meetings and court proceedings, Coloradans are deprived of the information they need to be engaged in their communities and hold their institutions accountable.
Going to court is the only remedy in Colorado’s open records and open meetings laws when journalists and members of the public believe they have been denied access improperly.
Unlike many other states, Colorado does not have an administrative appeals process or an ombudsman to handle open-government disputes. The Colorado Open Records Act only requires a records custodian to communicate with a requester who has filed a notice of intent to sue.
In Colorado’s application to the Reporters Committee, CFOIC identified several barriers to access. These include: the often-high cost of obtaining public records; the frequent withholding of law enforcement body-camera footage; the deletion of emails and other electronic public records; questionable denials purportedly based on exclusions in CORA; the sealing and suppression of court records; claims that public employees’ text messages discussing public business aren’t public records; public officials making decisions behind closed doors; and public officials meeting illegally via emails and texts.
“Colorado journalists face a number of legal issues, including high fees for obtaining public records and the misuse of exceptions and exclusions in the public records law to deny requests,” says a Reporters Committee statement on why Colorado was selected.
The Reporters Committee also chose Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee to provide pro bono legal support to journalists. The organization will choose which legal cases to file, after consulting with local partners. It also will help defend local news media against lawsuits and provide pre-publication review.
Colorado’s attorney is expected to start this summer.
“Colorado has been fighting an uphill battle for consistent transparency,” said Justin Sasso, president and CEO of the Colorado Broadcasters Association. “Adding these legal resources to our team’s arsenal will help achieve better access for broadcast journalists and benefit Coloradans overall.”
Said Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association: “Having access to a pro bono attorney courtesy of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will strengthen our fight for transparency and accountability in Colorado. We are grateful for the opportunity to be one of only five states piloting this program nationally and hope the program will continue to expand in the future.”
Every newsroom in Colorado will benefit, as well as the public in general, said Melissa Milios Davis, director of the Colorado Media Project and vice president of Strategic Communications and Informed Communities at the Gates Family Foundation.
“It increases our collective capacity to ensure that public information is transparent and easily accessible to all Coloradans. And it does so in a way that maximizes resources by helping Colorado journalists do their jobs more freely and effectively.”
Jeff Roberts is executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.