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SPJ commits $10K to back journalists seeking database of all public purchases in New Orleans



Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President, 804-873-1893, pfletcher.spj@gmail.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional JournalistsLegal Defense Fund and SPJ Board of Directors have committed $10,000 to support The Lens, a nonprofit publication fighting the City of New Orleans over access to a database tracking all public purchases.

The city has a habit of waiting until a public records requester files suit to produce requested documents on the eve of the court hearing, according to editors at The Lens. City officials know that most citizens and newspapers are not in a position to sue every time they request public records, they argued. Despite the city’s strategy, the Louisiana publication filed suit against the city in May 2015.

“Journalists and private citizens alike are fed up with government agencies playing games to hide information and ignore Freedom of Information laws,” said SPJ National President Paul Fletcher. “If The Lens is victorious in this issue, it could have wide-ranging, positive effects for all records requesters in Louisiana.”

Under Louisiana’s public records law, government agencies are required to provide access to public documents within three days if those documents are currently in use. The city routinely ignores this requirement. The Lens’ lawsuit seeks an order requiring the city to produce a digital database tracking all public purchases and a judgment from the court declaring that the city has repeatedly violated the law through its pattern of unresponsiveness to records requests.

In March, The Lens won a favorable ruling on the database issue when a judge ordered the city to produce the full database and rejected the city’s contention that producing it might release private information.

But the city is appealing the judge’s ruling on the database. The declaratory judgment condemning the city’s practice of unresponsiveness is pending before a trial court. The Lens plans to renew its request for the declaratory judgment soon. A declaratory judgment would likely force the city to overhaul its policies and practices regarding public records.

"We're grateful for the support and faith of SPJ's Legal Defense Fund. As traditional news media rethink their missions, it seems fewer and fewer are challenging emboldened government agencies over open-records or open-meetings violations," said The Lens Editor Steve Beatty. "As a nonprofit dedicated to transparency, we gladly step into that breach. It's not an inexpensive proposition, and this kind of support, along with all of our contributions, makes it possible. The matter at hand is fundamental: The public must be able to see all of the city's purchasing records. In 2016, public officials should be able to properly use and provide basic databases regarding the spending of taxpayer money. The excuse that computers are hard to use is unacceptable."

While the grant is significant, Beatty said, it likely won't cover the full cost of the lawsuit, since the city is taking it to an appeal.

The Lens has already accrued several thousands of dollars in legal fees. Because it is a nonprofit organization with a limited legal budget, members of the SPJ’s LDF Committee agreed it was a worthy cause and voted to grant the newspaper $5,000. An additional $5,000 was added when the SPJ Board of Directors voted during its April 16 meeting in New Orleans to match those funds.

“The Board agreed this is a very worthy cause, and SPJ is going to step in wherever it can to help fight for open records and FOI,” Fletcher said.

SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund collects and distributes contributions to aid journalists in defending the freedoms of speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The primary role of the Legal Defense Fund is to initiate and support litigation that enforces public access to government records and proceedings, which can be the most expensive way to defend the First Amendment. The fund can also be a source of support for FOI hotlines, coalitions and newsletters, as well as for legislative lobbying activities aimed at enforcing public access to government records and proceedings.

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund, or give to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.


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