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The Constant Battle for Reporters to access Government Information

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Jim Heaney from Investigative Post in Buffalo, highlights the constant battle reporters have to get information from government officials.
“A number of people have approached me in the past week, aghast at the news that the police department in Marion, Kansas, raided the office of the town’s weekly newspaper, hauling off the entire contents of the newsroom: files, computers, cell phones, etc. Police also raided the home of the Marion County Record’s 98-year-old co-owner, who died the following day as a result, her son said, of the shock and stress of the police incursion.
The police action was heavy-handed, to be sure, and definitely not the norm. But don’t think for a moment that many governments at the local, state and federal level aren’t waging war on the press in their own way.
Look no further than Geoff Kelly’s experience last week in reporting on the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s hiring of Mayor Byron Brown’s son to a cushy public relations job. Geoff got more than the usual run-around when he inquired; sewer authority officials went so far as to tell Geoff that if he wanted to know the name of its press officer, he needed to file a request under the state Freedom of Information Law. Calls and emails to the mayor’s spokesman went unanswered.
That’s frequently the response from the Brown administration, not just with us, but most local news outlets. Requests for information and interviews are routinely ignored. Releases of records requested under FOI are slow in coming.
The hostility doesn’t end with City Hall.
Two weeks ago, Geoff wrote about the stonewalling routinely practiced by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. They’re as bad as Brown’s office.
Of late, The Buffalo News had to push Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz with an FOI request after he stated his intention to not release its internal review of the county’s response to last year’s Christmas Blizzard. Poloncarz has since released selected portions of the review.
Earlier this year, The News had to sue the county to get video of guards abusing a prisoner at the Holding Center.
Investigative Post had to take Poloncarz and the county to court to obtain a report on the condition of Highmark Stadium. We had to do the same thing with the Empire State Development Corp., when they refused to release a feasibility study on a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
Right now, the Fort Schuyler Management Corp. — the state agency that brought us the Buffalo Billion scandal — is telling us to wait until at least next month for records we requested in March. Meanwhile, the FBI wants to take more than five years to review and release documents it has acknowledged are subject to release under the federal FOI Act.
Again, our experience is not unique.
Libel litigation is another way people in power with money and muscle try to muzzle the press. We were sued by a local developer in 2017. A judge tossed the lawsuit last year and told the plaintiff to cover the legal bills incurred by our insurer. (We’ve got good lawyers and an insurer who stands behind us.)
Right now, the former governor of Mississippi is suing that state’s news nonprofit for a story that won a Pulitzer Prize. The Intercept has been the target of relentless litigation filed by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater. Legal bills incurred by the Wausau Pilot & Review in Wisconsin to successfully fend off a libel lawsuit threaten to bankrupt and close the news nonprofit.
Wrote The New York Times of the latter example:
First Amendment experts say the case highlights a troubling trend of wealthy and powerful people using defamation law as retribution.
As politicians have grown more comfortable condemning media outlets they view as hostile — banning reporters from covering events, attacking them on social media, accusing them of being an “enemy of the people” — some public officials have started using the legal system as a way of hitting back.
So, yeah, the police aren’t kicking in any doors of newsrooms here in Buffalo or anywhere else outside of Kansas. Rather, those with power and/or wealth are using more subtle tactics in an effort to muzzle a free press.
So, yeah, the police aren’t kicking in any doors of newsrooms here in Buffalo or anywhere else outside of Kansas. Rather, those with power and/or wealth are using more subtle tactics in an effort to muzzle a free press.”

The Author

Paul is the founder of the NY Coalition For Open Government and has truly loved seeing it become what it is today and is excited about its future growth.

As an attorney for 32 years, he is a partner in the law firm of Berzer & Wolf. Prior to his private law practice, Paul served in several government positions with the Buffalo Common Council, Buffalo Housing Authority, and Erie County.

When he is not practicing law and doing open government stuff, Paul enjoys spending time with his spouse, Cheryl, and his three children, Michael, Joseph, and Julia. Paul resides in Amherst, NY, a suburb of Buffalo.

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