The pro bono effort comes as government entities have increasingly refused journalists’ requests for public records.
Part of a journalist’s job is to hold powerful people to account, including taxpayer-funded government agencies.
Salt Lake Tribune reporters do this by, among other things, filing requests for public registration, looking for contracts, emails and text messages, or other reports showing how that money is being spent.
But increasingly, it has become more common for Tribune reporters to get the same answer when asking for a public record: no.
That’s why attorneys from five Utah law firms have agreed to donate their time to the nonprofit news organization to help reporters appeal denial requests — and get information. which should be public under the law.
These appeals can be time-consuming, when a Tribune reporter, who is not a lawyer, argues against government lawyers about why a recording should be public. And when the news agency hired lawyers to represent her, it didn’t come cheap.
“Tribune reporters filed more than 300 open case requests last year, and the most common response we received was ‘no,'” editor Lauren Gustus said. “We asked for information that belongs to the public and which, in most cases, was clearly in the public domain. We are therefore delighted to have additional support from local experts who can help us navigate this important process. »
Michael O’Brien, a lawyer at Parsons Behle & Latimer, represented The Tribune for years. He said having a lawyer in the room during the appeals process levels the playing field for journalists. Every government entity from which Tribune reporters try to obtain records, O’Brien pointed out, has access to in-house attorneys, city attorneys, or help from the attorney general’s office.
“Just as the government has a whole team of lawyers who will hopefully help the government comply with [open records laws]but maybe sometimes finding ways not to leak documents, the media needs lawyers from time to time to help lift the veil of secrecy,” he said, “and bring some fresh air and sunshine in what is happening in government.
O’Brien and his team have helped Tribune reporters in recent years access police records, government employment records, and documents from local school districts and colleges, to name a few. .
“We’ve helped The Tribune obtain documents relating to just about every level of government,” he said.
But O’Brien said that as more journalists request tapes, he’s seen a corresponding increase in tape disputes and government entities “dragging their feet” to drop tapes. public under the law.
This is why, he says, the pro bono program is necessary.
The five law firms have agreed to donate up to 100 hours a year to represent Tribune journalists in record-breaking litigation. The lawyers are drawn from the law firms of Wilson Sonsini, Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, Parson Behle & Latimer, Mayer Brown and Foley & Lardner.
Randy Dryer, a Tribune board member and a law professor at the University of Utah, organized the effort.
Former Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas, who now works for the law firm Wilson Sonsini, said the pro bono effort felt like a homecoming for him. Before becoming a judge, he worked for The Tribune, reviewing articles and representing him in First Amendment issues. He felt it was important to step in to help the nonprofit now.
“Frankly, never in the history of our Republic has good, informed investigative journalism been so important,” he said. “And I think it’s essential that we all pick up where we can and do our part for that.”
Utah attorneys participating in the Salt Lake Tribune pro bono program
The lawyers come from the law firms of Wilson Sonsini, Parr Brown, Parsons Behle, Mayer Brown and Foley & Lardner.
• Deno Himonas
• Jeremy Brodis
• David Reyman
• Michael O’Brien
• Michael Judd
• Matt Moscon
• Mark Hindley
• Vaughn Pedersen
• Jared Braithwaite