New journalist nonprofit fights for government transparency

From KTVB

by Aspen Shumpert

The nonprofits said their goal is to help journalists and the public fight for public record requests when they’ve been improperly denied.

In the United States citizens have the right to request public records and documents from the government. But at times those requests may be improperly denied leaving, in Idaho, the only way to fight denials in court, which can be expensive.

A group of journalists in Idaho has established a nonprofit organization to assist with expenses, combat denials, and educate the public about public record laws.

“We don’t have the money to pay a lawyer every single time this happens,” Melissa Davlin, President of the Idaho First Amendment Alliance, said about fighting a denial for a public records request. 

In Idaho, public records for all government agencies are supposed to be open to the public unless specifically noted in Idaho’s public records law. 

“We’re dealing with hundreds of public employees, some of whom get dozens or hundreds of public records requests a year,” Davlin said. “And they don’t always understand the public records law.”

When a public records request you filed as a journalist or even as a member of the public is improperly denied, there are a few options to consider. 

“The vast majority of the time when somebody improperly denies a public record for citizens and journalists – or over redacts or over charges… usually we can clear that up with a phone call,” Davlin said. 

Davlin said that works most of the time, and she prefers to handle it this way when she feels a public records request has been denied improperly. 

But if a phone call to who’s in charge of getting the records to requestees doesn’t work your only choice of legal action in the state of Idaho is to sue. 

Going through the litigation process takes time and resources. But now, a group of journalists – including Davlin – are coming together to help out when this happens. 

They created the nonprofit the Idaho First Amendment Alliance. It’s set to not only educate journalists and the public through training and workshops on how to fight for records but also support financially in the fight in court. 

Davlin is also president of the Idaho Press Club, a now partner of the Idaho First Amendment Alliance – who’s taken government agencies to court before. 

“In 2019, we successfully sued Ada County to get records about the Western Idaho Fairgrounds,” Davlin said. “And then a few years ago we sued… then Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin over records on a taskforce that she was running. And in both cases, we won.”

But sometimes record denials go unchallenged – and fighting a denial isn’t realistic for some. 

“20 years ago, when your newsroom or my newsroom ran into an issue, a lot of times we had in-house counsel with the company, and we would be able to sue (government agencies) ourselves,” Davlin said. “Also, we would be able to pursue that independently. That’s not the case anymore. The stark reality of journalism right now is that newsrooms are shrinking, budgets are shrinking, weekly, local papers are closing down.”

Government transparency is necessary for journalists to do their jobs and for citizens to know what their government is doing, she said. 

“When we are freed up to report on what the government is doing, as opposed to spending our time fighting for records that we’re entitled to…it’s so much better for everybody,” she said. 

The nonprofit officially launched in April and the following months have been a “foundation building phase,” according to Davlin. 

“I would love to be in a place where we don’t feel like we have to fight for public records, either in the courtroom or over the phone, where everybody understands that transparency benefits everybody, both government officials and the citizens of Idaho,” she said. 

The Idaho First Amendment Alliance is actively seeking grants and fundraising opportunities. You can make a donation on their website.

From KTVB

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