U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

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

Incident Details

January 26, 2022

The city of Worcester was ordered to pay $95,000 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 Judge Janet Kenton-Walker ruled in favor of the T&G in June 2021 and found that the city improperly withheld thousands of pages of police investigations and disciplinary records from the newspaper.

T&G executive editor David Norman said in the outlet’s article on the ruling that it was “not only 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 “cherry-picked certain language” and “taking language out of context” from past litigated cases.

“Counsel may not misrepresent to the court what cases and other materials stand for.”

The punitive damages will be deposited into a public fund to help improve public records. According to the T&G, 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 T&G, 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.

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