U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Massachusetts city ordered to pay legal fees to news outlet for violating public records law

Incident Details

Date of Incident
January 26, 2022
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Other Incident


A portion of a public records lawsuit the Telegram & Gazette filed against the City of Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2018. The city agreed to pay the newspaper $180,000 in March 2023 after a judge ruled it had wrongfully withheld the records.

March 1, 2023 - Update

City of Worcester pays local newspaper $180,000 to settle public records lawsuit

The City of Worcester, Massachusetts, agreed to pay the Telegram & Gazette $180,000 on March 1, 2023, to settle the newspaper’s public records lawsuit, according to court filings reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

According to the lawsuit, Telegram & Gazette reporter Brad Petrishen emailed the city’s police department two records requests in June 2018: one sought a dozen internal affairs investigations and the other, the complaint histories for 17 officers.

The city initially said it would release all the materials except for four investigations that were still ongoing, but then reversed course and told Petrishen that it wouldn’t release any of the records, citing ongoing civil rights lawsuits and personnel privacy provisions. The newspaper’s suit argued, however, that the reversal was a reaction to articles Petrishen wrote about police misconduct allegations in August 2018.

In an interview with the New England First Amendment Coalition, Petrishen said, “We felt like it was important to write about these things and to try to determine the truth, because that’s really what we care about at the end of the day.”

The Telegram & Gazette's parent company filed the lawsuit on the newspaper’s behalf in October 2018 and the case ultimately went to trial in December 2020.

Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker ruled in June 2021 that the city acted in bad faith by illegally withholding the police misconduct investigation records and making misrepresentations during the legal proceedings, Petrishen reported for the Telegram & Gazette.

In January 2022, Kenton-Walker ordered the city to pay a $5,000 fine — the maximum amount allowed under state public records law — to the state’s Public Records Assistance Fund.

Kenton-Walker also ordered the city to pay Telegram & Gazette’s attorneys fees, but cut the paper’s requested fee award by more than half to $100,000. The Telegram & Gazette appealed the ruling, and a panel of three Massachusetts Appeals Court justices overturned the lower award amount. In March 2023, the city agreed out of court to pay a sum of $180,000 to the newspaper.

Michael McDermott, the Telegram & Gazette’s executive editor, told a local independent journalist that the multiyear court battle was for the right to access documents of considerable public interest. “I’m proud of reporter Brad Petrishen for pursuing these records and thankful to our lawyers for successfully defending the public's right to know,” McDermott said.

January 26, 2022

The City of Worcester was ordered to pay more than $100,000 in legal fees and $5,000 in punitive damages after a Massachusetts judge ruled on Jan. 26, 2022, that the city acted in bad faith when it violated public records statute by illegally withholding police records from the Telegram & Gazette in 2018.

Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker ruled in favor of the Telegram & Gazette in June 2021 and found that the city improperly withheld thousands of pages of police investigations and disciplinary records from the newspaper.

Telegram & Gazette Executive Editor David Norman said in the outlet’s article on the ruling that it was “not a victory for the newspaper alone, but a victory for the people of Worcester. We will continue to work for them by holding those in power accountable.”

In January, Kenton-Walker ruled that the city attempted to justify withholding the requested police department records by citing “cherry-picked” language from past litigation and “taking it out of context.”

“Counsel may not misrepresent to the court what cases and other materials stand for,” Kenton-Walker wrote.

The city was ordered to pay a total of $100,949 to the Telegram & Gazette for attorneys fees and costs. The $5,000 in punitive damages will be deposited into a public fund to help improve municipal public records compliance. According to the Telegram & Gazette, this appears to be the first punitive penalty of its kind since the state passed an act to improve public records in 2016.

“Hopefully this ruling will cause other public bodies to think twice before denying public records based on weak and strained legal arguments,” Jeffrey J. Pyle, the lawyer who represented Telegram & Gazette, told the newspaper.

City Solicitor Michael E. Traynor said in a statement to the outlet that the city did not agree with the ruling but will not appeal the decision. “The city always acts in good faith and we maintain our position that we did so in this case,” he wrote. “However, the court has spoken and we will move on.”

Traynor did not respond to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s request for comment.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the amount awarded to the Telegram & Gazette in Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker’s January 2022 ruling and to correct quotations from the ruling.

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