U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

California newsroom, free speech group get $500,000 in public records lawsuit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
November 28, 2023
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Other Incident


San José Spotlight Senior Reporter Joseph Geha, at left, interviews Mayor Matt Mahan in 2023. The Spotlight was awarded $500,000 in November following its victory in a public records lawsuit involving a former mayor’s communications.

November 28, 2023

The San Jose City Council approved a $500,000 payment to the San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition on Nov. 28, 2023, following their public records lawsuit against the California city and former Mayor Sam Liccardo.

The Spotlight, a nonprofit newsroom, filed the lawsuit on Feb. 3, 2022, alleging that the state’s Public Records Act was violated when Liccardo used private emails and text messages for city business in order to shield the communications from disclosure, and the city improperly searched the records. The lawsuit said it sought to enforce the public’s right of access to communications sent or received on nongovernmental devices.

In July 2023, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ordered the city to release hundreds of pages of improperly withheld records, the Spotlight reported. The following month, Kuhnle ruled that Liccardo and the city had violated transparency laws by failing to provide details about how they attempted to locate and search Liccardo’s private communications.

The financial award is the result of mandated fee-shifting under California’s records act — wherein the “prevailing party” is reimbursed for its legal costs. The Spotlight reported that the San Jose City Council unanimously authorized the $500,000 payment for attorneys fees for the news outlet and nonprofit at the meeting in November.

In a statement to the news outlet, Liccardo expressed dissatisfaction with the agreement and said that the money would “incentivize lawyers to continue trolling ‘gotcha’ public records lawsuits.”

Karl Olson, an attorney representing the Spotlight, told the outlet, “We think this was a hard fought victory that helped vindicate the public’s right to know, and we hope in the future it won’t be necessary for parties to have to go to court to get public records.”

Spotlight co-founder and CEO Ramona Giwargis told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that it’s community members, not the public officials, who are paying the price.

“I heard from a lot of residents later saying that this is unfair. Taxpayers are on the hook now for half a million dollars because city officials didn’t follow the law,” Giwargis said. “Even though they keep getting sued it doesn’t stop or change anything. For the city, it’s just a blip on the radar.”

Giwargis said that the Spotlight has since worked with State Sen. Dave Cortese to draft a bill, proposed in January 2024, to improve transparency and provide structure for complying with the California Public Records Act.

“We need to put more teeth into these policies so that there is some kind of repercussion that actually makes a difference,” Giwargis said.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].