America's Newspapers has awarded a $2,000 grant to the Vail (Colorado) Daily from its Open Government Litigation Fund to assist the newspaper with costs incurred in a media coalition fight to unseal the affidavit of probable cause supporting the warrantless arrest of Anderson Lee Aldrich, the suspect in the Club Q mass shooting.
In a letter to America's Newspapers in which it requested the grant, Nate Peterson, the editor of the Vail Daily who also serves as director of content and digital engagement for Ogden Newspapers' Colorado publications, wrote: "There is intense public interest in this case, and the Ogden Newspapers publications in Colorado are supporting this action in solidarity with other state media outlets."
He added, "The public’s right to know in this case is paramount. The Vail Daily and its sister publications have sharing agreements with statewide outlets such as the Colorado Sun, The Denver Post, and 9News. We are also AP member publications. We are reliant on the reporting these outlets have done on the shooting to serve our readers in our markets. The Sun, the Post, and other outlets should not have to shoulder the financial cost of funding this legal action on their own. "
Since this request was made, the affidavit has been unsealed.
Peterson told America's Newspapers that journalists saw important factors at play in this case. He said Aldrich was previously arrested in 2021, but charges were dropped and documents were sealed.
The Associated Press reported: "Aldrich was arrested in June 2021 on allegations of making a bomb threat that led to the evacuation of about 10 homes. Aldrich, who uses they/them pronouns and is nonbinary according to their attorneys, had threatened to harm their own family and boasted of having bomb making materials, ammunition and multiple weapons, according to law enforcement documents. They were booked into jail on suspicion of felony menacing and kidnapping."
The judge who dismissed the 2021 kidnapping case warned last year that the defendant had been stockpiling weapons and planning a shootout, and needed mental health treatment or “it’s going to be so bad.”
Despite those warning signs, Colorado’s red-flag law — which allows family members or law enforcement to request the temporary confiscation of firearms from people who pose a threat — was never used, and has never been used in El Paso County, where the Sheriff Bill Elder previously said he would limit his agency’s use of the law when it passed in 2019.
Peterson said the media coalition wanted the affidavit of probable cause unsealed because the public has the right to know what happened following the arrest and why charges weren't pursued last year.
He noted that this is a high-profile case that has drawn national interest. The Vail Daily sought to stand in solidarity with other members of the media coalition, which included the Colorado Sun, The Denver Post, the Colorado Springs-Gazette and others.
He thanked America's Newspapers for its support in what he called a classic First Amendment case. "The future of newspapers really is working together," he said. And, the public's right to know "doesn't get any more black and white than this case."
"Colorado, sadly, has too often been at the center of the national debate on gun control," Peterson said, "given the number of high-profile mass shootings that have occurred here. Our role as newspapers to keep the public informed is vital to our democracy, and never more important than in a case like this."
Steven Zansberg, Colorado’s pre-eminent First Amendment lawyer, is heading up this media coalition.
About the America's Newspapers Open Government Litigation Fund:
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. America’s Newspapers encourages its members to keep public records open and available to the public. Any members needing assistance for open-records litigation should contact Dean Ridings, America’s Newspapers CEO, at email@example.com.
In a 2-to-1 opinion, the Texas intermediate Court of Appeals in El Paso has ruled in favor of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman in its three-year public records dispute with The University of Texas at Austin.
The appeals court affirmed a state district court ruling that had ordered the records released. The appeals court also remanded the trial court's denial of the Statesman's motion for attorneys' fees. The appeals court ordered the trial court to determine the amount of reasonable attorney's fees incurred by the Statesman.
The initial lawsuit was filed three years ago as 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 UT following its refusal to produce the requested expulsion and transfer records and won access in a hearing before the trial court in Austin.
First Amendment attorney John Bussian, who represented the Statesman in its suit against UT, said that — in Texas — public records law requires government agencies that want to withhold public records "to get the blessing of the attorney general's office before they do it." In this case, he said, UT took the "high and mighty position that these laws are discretionary when it comes to these sexual assault records."
The appeals court ruling states that UT did not seek an opinion from the attorney general's office (OAG) until after the trial court rendered its ruling. The state's Public Information Act requires that such requests be made to the OAG no later than the tenth business day after the government entity receives the request for information.
"If the governmental entity fails to provide the requestor with the information or timely seek a decision from the OAG regarding an exception to the PIA, 'the information requested in writing is presumed to be subject to required public disclosure and must be released unless there is a compelling reason to withhold the information,'" the appeals court ruled.
Bussian said, "The idea that a major public university can just thumb its nose at the requirement that it seek a blessing from the attorney general's office to withhold public records is part of a larger problem for Texas residents in trying to protect their right to know."
To help fund the initial lawsuit, America's Newspapers awarded a $5,000 grant to the Statesman from its Open Government Litigation Fund. Members of America's Newspapers are encouraged to reach out to CEO Dean Ridings (firstname.lastname@example.org) if they are engaged in lawsuits supporting the First Amendment rights of newspapers and the public's right to know — and could benefit from similar help. Read more about the Open Government Litigation Fund guidelines here.
"In the face of a major state university refusing to comply with the state's public records law, the America's Newspapers litigation fund enabled the Statesman to challenge the stonewalling by the University of Texas," Bussian said. "While the case ended up taking a lot longer to resolve than anybody imagined, the initial contribution by America's Newspapers was important to mounting the challenge initially to the nondisclosure of public records by the University of Texas."
In the December 2019 article titled "NCAA looks the other way as college athletes punished for sex offenses play on" — part of a collection of "Predator Pipeline" articles — the USA TODAY Network reported that it "filed public records requests for campus disciplinary records at 226 public universities in the NCAA’s highest echelon, Division I. It also combed through hundreds of pages of police reports, court filings and other documents, and spoke with dozens of school officials, victims, lawyers, researchers and advocates."
Bussian said UT claimed the records constituted confidential student education records. While that would be true for grades and medical records, he said, "if you get convicted and expelled for sexual assault, the public has a right to know about that."
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 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 email@example.com.
For additional information, contact Ridings at (847) 282-9850, ext. 105, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publisher Les High reports that The News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina, has won its litigation against the Columbus County sheriff, who withheld incident reports for a month for a negative editorial that the paper wrote about him.
America's Newspapers had awarded a $5,000 grant to The News Reporter from its Open Government Litigation Fund to assist the newspaper in its lawsuit. The judge who heard the lawsuit awarded attorney’s fees to the newspaper, which is enabling the paper to return the $5,000 grant to America's Newspapers to be used to fight other battles, now that the deadline for the sheriff's office to appeal the ruling has passed.
High said: "Newspapers today face tough choices when it comes to filing lawsuits, but how can you not when the local sheriff doesn’t release incident reports for a month after an unfavorable editorial? The America's Newspapers litigation fund gave us confidence to move forward and would have helped defray what could have been a considerable cost. Fortunately, the judge awarded attorney’s fees and we were able to return the money to the fund."
He added, "Lawsuits can be expensive and time consuming, but we can’t shy away from doing what’s right."
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. CEO Dean Ridings encouraged members needing assistance from the fund to contact him at email@example.com.
Read more about the lawsuit in this article by The News Reporter's public safety reporter, Thomas Sherrill:
Following a judge’s order, Columbus County government paid $32,287.69 Wednesday (April 7) to a Raleigh-based law firm that represented The News Reporter and three other media outlets in a successful public records lawsuit against the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office. Joining The News Reporter in the suit, filed in October 2020, were Tabor-Loris Tribune, WWAY and WECT.
Judge John W. Smith wrote in his Feb. 8 ruling that the sheriff’s office’s withholding of “open incident reports” starting in September 2020 represented a “substantial failure to comply” with state public records law.
Smith ordered the sheriff’s office to send all incident reports to local media who requested them or who had a continuous request for them over the years, as it had prior to the office’s September 2020 policy change.
“North Carolina does not have an exception to the Public Records Law for draft documents,” Smith’s order states. “The Sheriff’s Office shall release reports that have been finally approved and those that have not yet been approved.”
In his March 2 order awarding attorney fees, Smith said the rates charged by the media outlets’ attorney, Amanda Martin of Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, were “reasonable” and that “determining attorney fees by hourly billing at a reasonable hourly rate is a fair and appropriate method for calculating attorney fees in this type of litigation.”
Smith said he considered the facts before the ruling, including the fact that, prior to the trial, Greene and the CCSO rejected mediation as an alternative form of dispute resolution.
Further, Smith wrote that since CCSO “did not rely upon legal advice from an attorney” prior to its policy change, it “is not entitled to any other exemption or mitigation authorized by law.”
“These fees should be charged upon the operating expenses of the Sheriff’s Department of Columbus County,” the order states.
Editor’s Note: Public Safety Reporter Thomas Sherrill, Editor Justin Smith and Publisher Les High were active participants in this case.
Read more from America's Newspapers — when the grant was initially awarded