NFOIC and Knight FOI Fund contributes to successful litigation for news media coalition

August 1, 2014 1:41 PM

Using a litigation grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Knight FOI Fund, a coalition of news media companies –the Carroll County Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Scripps Media’s WMAR-TV—successfully challenged the Carroll County (MD) Board of Commissioners under Maryland’s Public Information Act (MPIA).

County commissioners were ordered by a judge to produce all email distribution lists that they use to send messages to select groups of their supporters.

The lawsuit began after a February 2013 request to the commissioners by Carroll County Times journalist, Christian Alexandersen, for copies of the commissioners' email distribution lists.  The commissioners maintained categorized groups of constituent email addresses. For example, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier maintained a list called "Republic Women's Club of Taneytown."  “Conservative Counties” was the name of a distribution list maintained by Commissioner Richard Rothschild. The reporter requested the email addresses on these and all other lists each commissioner had compiled.

The newspaper's public records requests for the lists were greeted by pleas to back off, even intimidation. The commissioners pursued a legislative effort to change the MPIA and ultimately initiated a legal challenge stating they could withhold the lists under a provision in the MPIA that allows non-disclosure when releasing records “would cause substantial injury to the public interest.”

They lost.

With help from NFOIC and the Knight Foundation FOI grant, the coalition of news media companies had filed a countersuit against the County Commissioners under the conventional provisions of MPIA. Holland & Knight LLP in Washington, D.C., represented the media coalition in the case.  In a 20-page ruling retired Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney rejected the county's arguments and awarded summary judgment on the news media coalition's counterclaims. (Notably, Judge Sweeney had been assigned to the case after all local judges recused themselves.)

Read NFOIC’s news release from May 2013 awarding the Knight Fund FOI grant with more background on the challenge.

Read more about the judge’s ruling from the MDDC Press Association.

NFOIC is a national network of state FOI advocates, citizen-driven nonprofit FOI organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys. Its mission is to foster government transparency at the state and local level.  more, visithttp://www.nfoic.org/.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The Foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 

The Maryland Foundation for Open Government  promotes openness in all aspects of local, state and federal government and provides education to the public and government on all aspects of the US First Amendment and of Maryland’s Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act.