Freedom of Information fund will help news agencies access public records

Thursday, January 7, 2010 | 4:29 p.m. CST; updated 5:35 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 7, 2010

COLUMBIA — Small news agencies are being taken advantage of by the government, said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

The MU-based organization received a $2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to create the Knight Freedom of Information Fund, which will help shine light on public records disputes "that would not be filed otherwise due to lack of funds," said Davis, who is also a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The government, Davis said, knows smaller media agencies cannot sue and becomes brave enough to turn down media organizations' requests to view public records.

By funding filing costs and deposition hearings, the coalition should be more able to find attorneys that are willing to represent media agencies in public record disputes.

"This is terribly exciting," Davis said. "Media companies are more than willing to invest in these disputes because they are getting harder and harder." He said attorneys would be more willing to help when using their own funds wasn't necessary.

News organizations such as the Columbia Daily Tribune, The Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch frequently brought suits against government officials 10 years ago, Davis said.

Now, the sunshine laws are not being enforced, Davis said.

"The law is like a muscle: If you don't work it out, it atrophies," Davis said.

The coalition was founded 15 years ago by smaller state FOI groups in Texas, Virginia, California and New Mexico. The organization works to ensure public records are made available to the public.

Five years ago, MU was chosen for the coalition's national headquarters. It was previously in Dallas. Branches of the organization exist in 47 states.

Approximately $500,000 will go towards starting the Knight FOI Fund, and the rest of the grant will be used to fund other coalition projects, Davis said, including workshops and Web site development.

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