Nonprofit funds lawyers to defend news media in 5 states

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A nonprofit press freedom group announced on Tuesday that it would provide pro bono legal services in five states to help local news organizations defend their right to gather and report the news.

The Local Legal Initiative of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will fund attorneys in Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, the group said in a news release.

The free legal services are aimed at helping reporters gain access to public records and court proceedings. The five states were selected from among 30 where advocacy groups and news outlets submitted applications, the group said.

One of the reasons the committee chose Tennessee is because enforcing public records law in the state is so difficult, according to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which was among the groups submitting an application for the state.

“In Tennessee, the only way to enforce the public records and open meetings law when a government entity refuses to follow it is to file a petition in the courts," the coalition said in a news release. "Unlike in other states, there is no administrative appeals process and no automatic attorney fee award even if a journalist prevails.”

Colorado was also selected, in part, because it has no administrative appeals process, according to the Reporters Committee's announcement.

Part of the reason Oklahoma was selected was because journalists in the state say public officials " have become increasingly resistant to news media demands that they comply with open records and open meeting laws," according to the announcement.

In Oregon, a clash over government transparency caused the state’s first public records advocate to resign. "Before resigning, the official produced reports on the limitations on access to government information, which could serve as a valuable roadmap," the announcement stated.

And in Pennsylvania, the state's Right to Know Law is only a decade old, creating an opportunity to help mold how it is applied.

The initiative is partially funded by a $10 million investment by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to strengthen local journalism.

“It’s not enough to have First Amendment protections on paper," Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen said in a news release. "Freedom of the press needs to be defended on the ground, where local journalists are doing the work of holding the powerful to account.”