Idaho journalists launch nonprofit to promote government transparency - East Idaho News

Idaho journalists launch nonprofit to promote government transparency

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BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) – A new nonprofit is focused on helping Idaho journalists fight for government transparency.

The Idaho First Amendment Alliance, established this year, aims to provide funding for trainings, workshops and court fees for Idaho journalists challenging a public agency’s lack of transparency.

Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports lead producer and Idaho Press Club president, launched the nonprofit. She told the Idaho Capital Sun the organization will show Idaho journalists are “serious about government transparency,” particularly when a public agency does not comply with Idaho law.

In the last five years, the Idaho Press Club has twice successfully sued government agencies for refusing to provide public records, she said, and both lawsuits took a lot of resources and time.

“Unfortunately, we don’t always have the ability to do that,” Davlin said. “We’ve had to leave some denials unchallenged simply because we don’t always have the funds, the time or the resources to take somebody to court.”

Davlin said her goal is not to take agencies to court, but to help journalists bring transparency to the public.

“As an industry where we are facing so many challenges to the fiscal health of corporate newsrooms and small newsrooms, and trying to figure out what our industry is going to look like over the next 20 or 30 years, I think it’s important that we as a statewide organization are able to provide these tools for reporters,” Davlin said.

Idaho public records denials can only be challenged in court

The only way to challenge a public records denial, an overcharging of fees, or an over-redaction of a record, is to take that public agency to court.

In recent years, Idaho journalists have done so at least three times.

In 2019, an Idaho judge sided in favor of the Idaho Press Club, a statewide association of Idaho journalists, which said Ada County did not properly comply with Idaho public record law. The judge ordered the county to release the withheld information and pay the press club’s court costs, saying that officials “frivolously” and “improperly” denied the requests, the Idaho Statesman reported.

Last summer, the Coeur d’Alene Press successfully sued North Idaho College for denying access to employment contracts. The college denied the newsroom’s public records requests, saying the contracts were “personnel records,” and therefore exempt from disclosure, the Coeur d’Alene Press reported. A Kootenai County judge rejected that reasoning, ruling that the college must provide the records to the Press.

And in 2021, in what resulted in a high-profile lawsuit, the Idaho Press Club successfully sued former Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin after her office repeatedly refused to fill local reporters’ public records requests, the Idaho Statesman reported.

Longtime Idaho journalist Audrey Dutton told the Sun she has requested hundreds of public records in her career, but said the incident with McGeachin’s office was “so egregious.”

Dutton, as a former Idaho Capital Sun senior reporter, was one of the journalists who requested records from McGeachin’s office. Dutton received significantly redacted versions of the records she requested more than a month later.

“There was no reason to not give us the records we were asking for,” she said. “It was a shockingly poor application of the law.”

Inconsistent understandings of Idaho laws

In addition to her own experience, Dutton said she regularly sees inconsistent understandings from public agencies of Idaho’s public record law.

Dutton is a reporter at ProPublica and a journalism adjunct faculty at Boise State University, where she teaches college students how to request public records.

“Every year I have students file public record requests, and they get back very little,” Dutton said. “They get back denials. They have some agencies that completely ignore them, and some of them get back an incredible wealth of information. It’s just so hard to predict what’s going to happen — which is not how it should be.”

Dutton said she believes there is so much inconsistency when it comes to receiving public records because there is a lack of knowledge about the law across local and state agencies.

However, the Idaho First Amendment Alliance can help bridge that gap and give local journalists the tools they need to do the best at their jobs, she said.

“One of the very frequent reasons that people leave the profession is because they feel like they don’t have the support and the resources that they need,” Dutton said. “It would be great if every newsroom could fully fund court fees, but if we have a third party that can help, then that’s great.”

Retired Idaho journalist and former Idaho Press Club president Betsy Russell said that in addition to a lack of knowledge about Idaho’s freedom of information laws, she believes public agencies may not comply with the laws because they face a lack of staffing or simply forget about the public record request.

“Public records are the evidence of what the government does” Russell told the Sun. “In a free society, citizens have a right to know what their government does, and it’s the job of the journalists to report accurately and fairly to the public.”

Throughout her career on behalf of the Idaho Press Club, Russell has been involved in numerous lawsuits against public agencies that do not comply with Idaho’s open meeting and public records laws.

This includes in 2006 when the Idaho Press Club sued the legislature for closing seven committee meetings in 2003 and 2004. The press club was unsuccessful, the Spokesman-Review reported, but the lawsuit led the legislature to adopt new rules mimicking the requirements of the Idaho Open Meeting Law.

Russell said that in the end, the outcome was good.

“Local news reporters are the watchdogs of local government, and as the ranks of local news reporters have declined all over our country, there is more impunity and less accountability on the part of some local governments,” Russell said. “We want our country to continue to be what we’ve always treasured. And so with fewer eyes and ears watching local governments, it makes sense for journalism groups and openness advocates to come together on a statewide basis to try to spearhead this.”