On Jan. 21, 2020, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington D.C. based nonprofit that has assisted journalists in pro-bono legal services and resources in protection of First Amendment Rights to the press since 1970, helped pass an initiative in five states (Pennsylvania, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee) that will assign a lawyer specifically related to “helping journalists combat government secrecy.”
In the pursuit of the truth, journalists must jump over legal hurdles to get access to records that end up becoming financial burdens. This process can be expensive, which, in the current era of journalism, can often mean the death of a paper. However, the initiative, called the “Local Legal Initiative,” will ensure that Pennsylvania, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee journalists will have free legal representation when getting these documents in order to ensure access to them and reduce the financial hassle. It’s a simple case of an equalizer against an opponent with unlimited money and resources.
This means that now, especially with political reporting, there will be more transparency, especially in an age where misinformation is at an all-time high. Not only will journalists benefit, but the country’s general population will as well, given the increased accessibility to records that show what governments are doing, and as a result, they will be held more accountable.
Certain open-access policies, like Sunshine laws and the Right-to-Know Law, were put in place to increase transparency between governing bodies and citizens, with journalists acting as the messenger. Even with these laws in place, there has still been information fallout. In 2017, the administration spent $36.2 million to defend its refusal to turn over records requested by journalists, according to the Associated Press. In over one-third of cases that year, federal employees denied journalists access to part or all records requested, effectively keeping people in the dark.
The appointment of a First Amendment lawyer who is dedicated to exclusively aiding journalists breaks down the wall of secrecy between city hall and residents of Pennsylvania. Any and all pushback against obtaining information will be fought with stacked resources and unwavering commitment, keeping readers’ knowledge and the truth at the forefront.
The initiative is funded by a $10 million investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and is meant to strengthen local journalism.
While this initiative will not necessarily impact us directly, we at The Triangle heavily appreciate how positively it will affect the Pennsylvania press and believe it is more than a step in the right direction: It is potentially one that will be the most positive for press freedom in this country.