Two media outlets and a government accountability nonprofit won a settlement in their open records lawsuit against Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on June 21, 2023. The case was brought by the Bleeding Heartland blog, the Iowa Capital Dispatch and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council after their government records requests, including about the COVID pandemic, had gone unanswered for a year.
The ACLU of Iowa filed the lawsuit on behalf of the organizations in December 2021, after eight separate government record requests between April 2020 and April 2021, all renewed at least once, had been ignored by the governor’s office. The organizations claimed that in doing so Reynolds had violated Iowa’s open records law. Within days of the lawsuit being filed, the governor released the requested records, blaming the delay on COVID-19.
The government’s attorneys argued that the case should be dismissed because the governor isn’t obligated to respond in a timely manner and had ultimately released the records. When the judge denied their request for dismissal, they appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. On April 14, 2023, the court unanimously denied the request and returned the case to the Polk County District Court, which approved the settlement agreement.
“The Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling was a significant victory not only for press freedom but for the public’s ability to access government records,” said Kathie Obradovich, editor-in-chief of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, in an email to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. “It made clear that the governor’s office is subject to Iowa’s open records law and that the law’s provision that records requests be fulfilled within a reasonable period of time is, in fact, enforceable.”
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the organization was pleased with the outcome of the legal challenge. “The governor and her staff cannot ignore their obligations under the public records statute,” said Evans in an email to the Tracker, “even when doing so might be inconvenient or embarrassing.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the governor’s office must pay the plaintiffs $135,000 to cover their legal fees (an amount approved by the State Appeal Board) and undergo a one-year period of judicial oversight to make sure it continues to comply with Iowa’s open records law.
“It's sad that we are still having to fight to make sure government officials follow those laws,” Laura Belin, lead author of Bleeding Heartland, told the ACLU of Iowa. "Journalists need to be able to report on what's happening in our state government without unreasonable delays, especially during a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic."