A Louisiana reporter files a public-records request — and gets sued for her efforts

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.

Well, this is certainly a novel response to receiving a public-records request. The Republican attorney general of Louisiana, Jeff Landry, has sued a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune. The newspapers are seeking records about an official in the AG’s office who’s been accused of sexual misconduct. Landry has asked a judge to issue a declaratory judgment turning down the request and sealing the proceedings.

“In my 40 years as an editor, I’ve never seen a journalist get sued for requesting a public record,” Peter Kovacs, the newspaper’s editor, was quoted as saying. “We’re not intimidated. In fact, we’re more determined.” The reporter, Andrea Gallo, took to Twitter to warn: “I worry about reverse FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] suits against those who do not have my level of resources to fight back. Another reason to support local journalism!

In fact, Gallo’s fears are already coming true. According to The Washington Post, such lawsuits are on the rise, with University of Georgia professor Jonathan Peters citing such examples as a lawsuit against a student newspaper filed by a university and an education agency that sued a nonprofit seeking enrollment information. Peters told the Post:

Government officials generally claim that these actions are initiated in good faith and that it is prudent for courts to step in immediately if an agency’s disclosure obligations are unclear. But suing record requesters is unwise, democratically dangerous, and usually unlawful.

Here in Massachusetts, reporters have long since grown accustomed to having their public-records requests ignored. Thanks to a weak state law, penalties for ignoring a valid public-records request are minimal, and government officials take full advantage of that. But suing journalists for seeking public records takes matters to a new and dangerous level.