U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Bevy of court rulings for public records and press freedom

Published On
February 28, 2022
U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

A snapshot of categories from our home page this month

— U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

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From the Courts, Part I

In the week immediately following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, more journalists covering protests there were assaulted or arrested by law enforcement than in the entirety of 2019.

Being the Tracker, we have receipts: Across social justice protests in 2020 and 2021, we documented 41 arrests or detainments of journalists covering protests and 91 assaults of journalists by law enforcement in Minnesota alone. (card)

So it was a huge win for press freedom when journalists, represented by the ACLU of Minnesota, in a lawsuit against the Minnesota State Patrol reached a “ground-breaking” settlement agreement this month. It awarded $825,000 to journalists assaulted or arrested by MSP while covering protests over the police killings of Floyd and Daunte Wright, another Black man shot in nearby Brooklyn Center in April 2021. The settlement also bars the MSP from, among other things, attacking or arresting journalists and searching or seizing equipment while enacting policy changes, like training on media treatment and First Amendment rights.

Find details of the journalists in the lawsuit and their press freedom incidents here in the Tracker.

U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

And this is a good time to give snaps to our web team and Tracker Senior Reporter Stephanie Sugars for quietly, manually, incredibly improving the metadata in our database to enable you to search litigation for journalists with incidents by type, status and case number.

Sugars also details this litigation and the progress of dozens of lawsuits brought by journalists arrested or assaulted while covering Black Lives Matters protests here: At least 60 journalists have sued police following arrests, assaults at protests - US Press Freedom Tracker.

Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Executive Director, Trevor Timm, writes that this settlement is a good reminder how agents at the state and local level have the most power to protect — or curtail — journalist’s rights.

“We hope this settlement will become a model around the country for other journalists seeking accountability, and judges in those cases should take note.”


From the Courts, Part II

On Valentine’s Day, a New York federal judge handed a sweet (OK, I’ll stop) victory to The New York Times when he dismissed on merits a libel suit brought by former Alaska governor and once-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin over a 2018 editorial. The next day, the jury also returned a unanimous verdict, finding the paper not liable.

In another legal ruling for the Gray Lady in February, an appeals court stayed, or paused, a prior restraint on the Times that had been in place since November 2021 around its reporting on the conservative group Project Veritas. The Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court ruled that the Times can move forward with publishing documents pertaining to the group until a formal appeal of the restraint can be heard. The outlet is also no longer obligated to turn over or destroy copies of documents it’s holding.

REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Sarah Palin leaves a United States Courthouse in Manhattan during her defamation lawsuit trial against The New York Times on Feb. 15, 2022.

From the Courts, Part III

Find two recent legal wins around access to public records in our Denial of Access category.

  • Independent reporter Tony Webster reached a $100,000 settlement in a public records lawsuit with the City of Minneapolis after not receiving a single file from a 2019 records request with the Minneapolis Police Department. He’s now received more than 3,300 pages of police disciplinary records, which he’s used in his reporting. "In a public records lawsuit, getting the records is of course a win, and paying the legal costs makes it all that much better," Webster told the Tracker. "But at the same time, I'm disappointed. I wanted a court's finding that the City broke the law, and I wanted an order requiring them to make improvements to their processes to ensure that it doesn't happen again."
  • Similarly, a judge ruled the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, “acted in bad faith” and ordered it to pay legal fees and punitive damages to the Telegram & Gazette for illegally withholding police records from the outlet in 2018. According to the T&G, the punitive damages will be deposited into a public fund to help improve public records.

From (Not Going to) the Courts, Part IV

In October 2021, St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist Josh Renaud reported how he found a flaw on a state website that exposed Missouri educators’ Social Security numbers. When he alerted the state to the vulnerability, Gov. Mike Parson accused him of hacking and threatened him and the newspaper with prosecution.

I would have thought a simple “thank you” would suffice, and not just because I received a lot of journalism education in Missouri — the state education commissioner thought so as well. The Post-Dispatch found through an open records request that the commissioner initially planned to thank the newspaper for finding the problem but instead issued a news release calling the reporter a “hacker.” Parson also continued to express “vehement confidence that a case would be brought” against the journalist as late as Dec. 29. Finally, in February, the Cole County prosecutor said he wouldn’t be pressing charges. Renaud called the attacks “a political persecution of a journalist, plain and simple,” in his personal statement after the announcement:

“This decision is a relief. But it does not repair the harm done to me and my family. My actions were entirely legal and consistent with established journalistic principles.”


Sunshine Ahead

With conflicting groundhog reports this recent Groundhog Day, I don’t know what spring weather will look like. But March brings some sun: Sunshine Week is March 13-19. Led by Tracker partner News Leaders Association, be on the lookout for a week-long celebration of public access to information. As always, your support of the Tracker is sunshine to us. Donate here.

Best,
Kirstin McCudden
Managing Editor, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

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