Reporter for The Advocate, The Times-Picayune sued by Louisiana attorney general over public records request
Andrea Gallo, a Louisiana-based reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune newspaper, was sued by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry on Feb. 5, 2021, in an effort to block a public records request made by Gallo.
Landry’s lawsuit asked a judge to back up the attorney general’s denial of a request that Gallo had filed Dec. 14, 2020, asking to see a sexual harassment complaint against a high-ranking official in Landry’s office.
Gallo was initially told that the records would be available after an investigation of the complaint was complete, according to The Advocate. On Jan. 22, 2021, after the official under investigation had returned to the office from a period of administrative leave, the attorney general’s office told Gallo that the records would be made available the following week. Then, on Jan. 28, the office declined to release the complaint, saying the document contained private information that was protected by internal confidentiality policies, as well as constitutional disclosure protections.
Gallo told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that typically after a records request is denied, she would go to the newspaper’s lawyer and the newspaper might eventually file a lawsuit. According to The Advocate, the newspaper had warned Landry that the publication was prepared to sue for the records.
Then on Feb. 5, Gallo said she received an email notifying her that Landry had filed suit against her. Gallo told the Tracker she was shocked.
In the suit, Landry’s office argued that releasing the records would lead to a chilling effect on employees reporting sexual harassment, for fear that personal details would be made public. The lawsuit also asked the court to seal the records of the proceedings related to the records request, and to order Gallo to cover court costs.
Gallo told the Tracker she feared the attorney general’s action could dissuade people from seeking public records.
“I think that it sends a very clear message to reporters, and to the public of Louisiana, that if you request documents from the attorney general's office you better watch out, because you might be subjected to a lawsuit,” Gallo said.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Tracker partner, criticized Landry’s lawsuit in a statement.
RCFP legal fellow Gunita Singh told the Tracker that when public officials sue people who request records, it has a chilling effect.
“Public records laws exist to maximize our right to know and to illuminate the actions of government officials and institutions. These laws serve as a vehicle for us to learn about the conduct—or misconduct—of state actors,” Singh said. “So when a records requester gets hit with a lawsuit that has the effect of deterring her from using these crucial laws to the benefit of the public, it’s deeply concerning.”
Singh said in many states, public records laws presume records are subject to public disclosure.
“When lawsuits are aimed at stifling the free flow of information by targeting records requesters, they subvert that presumption of disclosure, to the detriment of not just the individual requester but society as a whole,” Singh said.
Landry’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
After a Zoom court hearing on March 4, a judge ruled in favor of Gallo, ordering Landry’s office to release the sexual harassment complaint and to pay the newspaper’s attorney’s fees of $5,625, The Advocate reported.
“I'm hopeful that based on the outcome of this lawsuit Jeff Landry's office and all, like, public agencies in the state have learned that this isn't the right way to go about handling a request for documents,” Gallo said.
After the attorney general’s office released a heavily redacted version of an investigation into the sexual harassment complaint, the newspaper counter-sued, seeking more complete access, according to The Advocate. A judge ruled in favor of Landry, saying the redactions were within his office’s authority. However, the judge ordered Landry’s office to again pay the newspaper’s court costs, saying that Landry’s office had been slow to process the records.