America's Newspapers has awarded a $5,000 grant to The News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina, from its Open Government Litigation Fund to assist the newspaper in a lawsuit filed against the sheriff of Columbus County for withholding incident reports.
The lawsuit was filed in late September and the case is expected to be heard in January 2021.
In its request to America's Newspapers, Publisher Les High said: "The sheriff has chosen to release only reports that have been cleared or where an arrest has been made, which is contrary to North Carolina Public Records statutes."
The News Reporter is being joined in its suit by three additional plaintiffs: Wilmington television stations WECT (Gray Television) and WWAY (Morris Network), as well as a small, independent weekly, The Tabor-Loris Tribune.
The lawsuit was filed after the Columbus County Sheriff's Office stopped including incident reports among the records released to the media. The sheriff's office told the newspaper that the department does not intend to provide any information about unsolved or open cases because it could interfere with investigations.
"Public officials can’t decide on their own which records are public," High says. "We respect that some portions of police investigations need to be conducted in confidence, but the General Assembly has made it abundantly clear that some information is routinely public, even from ongoing investigations. A sheriff’s office that doesn’t feel it needs to abide by well-established provisions of North Carolina public records law should give any citizen pause. It’s also interesting to note that the sheriff’s new policy came immediately after an editorial that was critical of his performance."
While High said this isn't a great time to spend money on legal expenses, he said: "We just didn't feel like this is the kind of thing that could go unchallenged." He expressed his appreciation for the help received from the Open Government Litigation Fund established by America's Newspapers, saying: "$5,000 might not seem like a lot of money to some newspapers, but to small independents like ours, this is extremely helpful."
Amanda Martin, who is representing the four media plaintiffs, said the sheriff's new policy conflicts with state law. In a letter to Columbus County Attorney Amanda Prince, Martin cited N.C. General Statute Chapter 132-1.4, which — under subsection C — lists the information that shall be public, including "the time, date, location and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency."
CCSO Sheriff Jody Greene said incident reports are being withheld because the department "has received a vast number of complaints from the general public" who fear "reporting a crime due to their personal information being released prior to the conclusion of the investigation."
In an editorial published September 25, The News Reporter argued: "Only in extreme cases where someone's mental or physical health or the personal safety of a material witness is threatened or an investigation potentially compromised may information be withheld from the public. This exception is rarely used. In fact, the statute takes withholding such information so seriously, it provides a mechanism for an immediate hearing where a judge decides if the information can continue to be withheld."
The editorial further noted that the "timing of Sheriff Greene's new 'policy' is suspect. The sheriff's office stopped sending incident reports the day The News Reporter published an editorial critical of the sheriff."
That September 4 editorial called on the sheriff to rein in threats and rhetoric and to "act in a manner that earns respect rather than trying to evoke fear and intimidation against law-abiding citizens and officials who happen to disagree with him."
The Open Government Litigation Fund is designed to assist members of America's Newspapers that are engaged in lawsuits supporting the First Amendment rights of newspapers and the public's right to know. Learn more
America's Newspapers has awarded a $5,000 grant to the Austin American-Statesman (Texas) from its new Open Government Litigation Fund to assist the newspaper in its ongoing public records dispute with the University of Texas-Austin.
The Statesman’s public records lawsuit is part of a nationwide investigative reporting effort by Gannett’s USA TODAY Network into the questionable practice by major intercollegiate athletic programs to recruit and admit athletes expelled for sexual assault by other academic institutions.
Requests for records to public universities across the country resulted in Gannett obtaining records in some instances and not others, even within the same state. The Statesman sued The University of Texas at Austin following its refusal to produce the requested expulsion and transfer records and won access in a hearing before the trial court in Austin. The Statesman is defending its victory in an appeal by the university to the state intermediate court of appeals. Given the intensity of the university’s opposition to releasing the records requested by the Statesman, the case could eventually end up before the Texas Supreme Court.
The Statesman’s lead counsel in the case against the University of Texas, John Bussian, commented: “The case arose at a time when America’s Newspapers Open Government Litigation Fund had just become operational. And it turned out that this is exactly the kind of cause the fund is designed to help support. The alliance with America’s Newspapers in a case like this is a first, and the hope is that early success here will spur other members of America’s Newspapers to mount legal challenges to government actors blocking public access to records and meetings."
Patrick Dorsey, publisher of the Austin American-Statesman, said: "The Statesman is committed to fighting for the rightful access to public records, especially when such serious consequences are at stake. We appreciate America's Newspapers adding its support as we defend our victory for access in the court of appeals."
Last fall, when the Statesman filed suit against UT-Austin over the school's refusal to supply records related to students disciplined for sexual misconduct, Statesman Executive Editor John Bridges said federal law makes it clear that universities are free to disclose the information the paper is seeking.
"It's disheartening that the University of Texas, given an opportunity for openness and transparency, chose instead to keep these records from the public."
The Open Government Litigation Fund is designed to assist members of America's Newspapers that are engaged in lawsuits supporting the First Amendment rights of newspapers and the public's right to know.
The Fund is dedicated to providing support for necessary legal action — primarily the initial costs of drafting, filing and serving a lawsuit — to enforce the public’s right to know through access to government records and meetings.
Any member may submit a written request for assistance from the Fund with a state public records or open meetings lawsuit or with a federal Freedom of Information Act-based claim.
All requests are reviewed by a subcommittee of the Legal Affairs and Lobbying Committee, which will make a formal recommendation to the chairman of the committee for action by the Executive Committee of the full board of America’s Newspapers.
A member may make one request in a new case per year.
Funding is limited to $5,000 per lawsuit, including appeals, subject to the Fund’s capacity at the time of the member’s request.
Members receiving funding are obligated to seek recovery of legal expenses in each lawsuit, wherever possible, and to reimburse the Fund if legal expenses are recovered by the requesting member.
Written requests for assistance should be submitted to CEO Dean Ridings at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional information, contact Ridings at (847) 282-9850, ext. 105, or email him at email@example.com.