Inside the News Room

National journalism organization dedicates support for The Lens’ lawsuit against city

The Society of Professional Journalists committed $10,000 to The Lens to support our year-long lawsuit seeking public purchasing records from the city.

“We’re grateful for the support and faith of SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund,” Lens Editor Steve Beatty said.

The SPJ’s board and the organization’s Legal Defense Fund committee each awarded $5,000, publicly announcing it today.

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

In mid-March, 10 months into the lawsuit, Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese ordered the city to produce the purchasing records database immediately. But things are once again on hold.

On April 11 Reese granted the city’s motion for suspensive appeal, temporarily relieving it from his mid-March order until it can appeal. The appeal likely means The Lens won’t see the purchasing records anytime soon. Beatty said The Lens will continue the fight as a matter of principle.

“The matter at hand is fundamental: The public must be able to see all of the city’s purchasing records,” Beatty said. “In 2016, public officials should be able to properly use and provide basic databases regarding the spending of taxpayer money.”

City attorneys claim releasing the database could inadvertently release private information, such as social security numbers or addresses, which employees incorrectly entered into purchasing records software.

“The excuse that computers are hard to use is unacceptable,” Beatty said.

The Lens first requested the city’s purchasing records, stored in a database named BuySpeed, under state Public Records Law in January 2015. After months of waiting, we sued the city and Mayor Mitch Landrieu in May 2015.

State law allows government agencies three days to provide access to public records if they’re in use. In the examples cited in The Lens’ lawsuit, the city took up to four months. The city failed to provide records within the legal limit in about two-thirds of The Lens’ requests referenced in the filing made by Lens attorney Scott Sternberg of Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer.

At a hearing in June Reese denied all three motions. However, he reconsidered after The Lens showed the judge his initial ruling had an error and the city had not, in fact, produced all of the records Reese thought it had.

He then told the city and The Lens to work out an agreement by which the city would turn over the records and the newsroom would protect private information. Those talks failed, leading to the recent hearing at which The Lens prevailed.

Beatty stressed that a free press isn’t free.

“As traditional news media rethink their missions, it seems fewer and fewer are challenging emboldened government agencies over open-records or open-meetings violations,” Beatty said. “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.”

Sternberg agreed with Fletcher that the outcome of the case likely will affect future efforts of the state’s major news outlets, based in New Orleans, the jurisdiction covered by the appeals court.

“It’s a shame that public-interest organizations, like The Lens, have to fight for these records that are clearly public,” Sternberg said. “But it’s a testament to SPJ’s commitment to open government and to the importance of this case.”

With nearly 7,500 members, the Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. It works to educate current and future journalists through professional development, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press through its advocacy efforts.

Its annual Excellence in Journalism conference will be held in New Orleans this year in September.

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