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SPJ Victorious in Texas Open Records Case


Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ President, 937/225-2323 or; Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists has helped convince a federal appeals court that the details of a police discrimination lawsuit settlement were improperly sealed by the trial judge.

The U.S. Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled last week that the terms of a civil rights settlement between the city of Huntsville, Texas, and former police officer Deneen Ford are a public record protected under the state’s Public Information Act. U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa Glimore previously had sealed the information from public view.

"This is a clear victory for those who fight for open records and government, whether they be journalists or members of the public who have a right to review how governments conduct business," said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and regional editor at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "The court has made clear that government entities cannot ignore open records laws simply because they want to, and we applaud the court’s decision."

The Society last year joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of Newspaper Editors in filing a friend-of-the-court brief on the case, stating that the terms of the city’s settlement are public record under the Texas Public Information Act. The federal appeals court judge concurred on Jan. 22.

The case began in 1998 when Ford, who is black, was fired from the Huntsville police force and claimed that racial and gender discrimination motivated her dismissal. The lawsuit was dropped when Ford settled for an undisclosed amount of money in December 1999.

When the city’s daily newspaper — the Huntsville Item — investigated the case, it filed a motion asking Judge Gilmore to unseal the records. The judge refused, and the case was taken to the federal appeals court.

"When a city settles litigation against it and spends public money to do so, that is precisely the kind of court document that must be open for inspection," said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel and attorney for Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. "This case is a good example of the importance of maintaining the presumption of public access to judicial records, an issue that the federal court system is currently studying."

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