U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Reporters caught in EPA records dispute; Louisiana sues to obtain documents

Incident Details

Reuters/Go Nakamura

In his role as state attorney general, Jeff Landry, seen speaking at a 2022 conference, initiated a public records request that involves communications between reporters and a federal agency. He’s continued to pursue the records as governor.

— Reuters/Go Nakamura
June 29, 2023

Nine journalists and their news outlets are embroiled in a legal dispute between Louisiana and the federal government that started June 29, 2023, when the state sought communications between the reporters and a federal agency, according to legal documents reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Gov. Jeff Landry initiated the Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when he was the state’s attorney general. His administration has since continued his pursuit of the records, which relate to a since-shuttered EPA investigation into “Cancer Alley,” a heavily polluted area primarily inhabited by Black residents. The state’s record request goes back to March 2021 and also seeks communications between the EPA and environmental activist groups.

Named in the state’s initial FOIA request were Halle Parker and/or news site Nola.com; Morgan Radford and/or MSNBC; Timothy Puko, Darryl Fears and Michael Phillis, and/or The Washington Post; Oliver Laughland and/or The Guardian; Anna McAllister and/or television station WGNO; Mike Smith and/or The Advocate newspaper; and Bobbi-Jeanne Misick and/or public radio station WWNO.

Louisiana’s Deputy Solicitor General Joseph Scott St. John explained the records request in an August letter to the EPA, in which he said, “It has become apparent to the State from highly specific press inquiries that the EPA has been prodigiously leaking information to the press.” St. John did not cite any examples.

After the EPA said it would take more than a year to complete the records request, the state filed a FOIA-related suit on Dec. 19, 2023, seeking speedier release of the documents. The EPA was reported to have since sent the state 965 pages of information and was expected to send more in February 2024.

Parker, one of the journalists targeted by the state, told Verite News she was surprised to learn she was part of its FOIA request. “I had never thought about a government agency looking to see what I had found out about them or what information I was seeking about topics in general. So it was just kind of eye opening to me.”

Kai Falkenberg, U.S. general counsel for The Guardian, whose reporter and news organization was also named in the FOIA suit, said, “We are deeply concerned by what appears to be an attempt to intimidate journalists and interfere with their ability to report on alarming matters of environmental injustice.”

Rep. Troy Carter, whose district includes Cancer Alley, also told The Guardian, “The first amendment protects the right to free speech. The government should not have any appearance of targeting private individuals in a manner that could inhibit freedom.”

Freedom of the Press Foundation, which oversees the operation of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, characterized the state’s action as “highly problematic.” Seth Stern, FPF’s director of advocacy, told Nola.com, “The Freedom of Information Act is intended as a tool for Americans to obtain information about what government is up to, not for governments to obtain information about what reporters are up to.”

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