This year Washington was about freedom of the press and transparency.
Except at Seattle City Hall, where the opposite happens.
In an outrageous and deeply disturbing move, the city sued the Seattle Times when the newspaper filed a last resort lawsuit to obtain public records of the city’s actions during last summer’s protests and riots.
It found that City Attorney Pete Holmes was not keeping up with the public’s interest in open government and accountability for the city’s performance.
This is not just a dispute between city officials and The Times.
There is a central disagreement about the public’s right to know about their Seattle and Washington state governments, and whether communities should stifle civic engagement and transparency with lawsuits.
Holmes ultimately represents the people of Seattle. But he prioritizes bureaucratic camouflage over their right to know what elected leaders did during last summer’s debacle, including mishandled protests, the Mafia takeover on Capitol Hill, the abandonment of a police station, and the resignation of the chief of police.
Holmes tries to downplay the counterclaim. His office, which declined an interview request, now says it doesn’t really intend to investigate the cost of keeping Pacifica Law Group on to fight the filing case, but it hasn’t withdrawn the counterclaim. Pacifica is a politically affiliated firm in Seattle whose attorneys regularly support Holmes’ election campaigns.
But it’s too late. Damage has been done now that the city is poised to sue public information requesters and suppress the rights of the First Amendment.
“The right to speak is a consequence of the right to get information,” said Jonathan Peters, professor of media law at the University of Georgia. “By suing applicants who are trying to learn more about their government, the government is discouraging the public … the ability to learn about their activities.”
The threat of counterclaim is particularly overwhelming for individuals, who increasingly request public records as local media dwindles and citizens seek information themselves.
“It obviously has a chilling effect not only on journalists but also on the public who are trying to hold the government accountable,” said Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a retired editor-in-chief of the Times.
The Times and its willingness to invest in costly investigations and the public’s right to information is now a rarity with greedy investment firms owning half of America’s remaining daily newspapers.
Thousands of newspapers traditionally struggling to keep records open have closed and newspaper editorial offices have shrunk 57% since 2008.
Many survivors can barely pay journalists, let alone lawyers, to fight secrecy. Forcing them to pay for expensive law firms hired by City Hall could put some out of business.
What can be done Prosecutors should formally withdraw their counterclaim and attorney fee motion, and pledge never to pursue these tactics again.
State lawmakers, who just passed a powerful new law in April against frivolous lawsuits that threaten civic engagement and vigorous reporting, should pass laws prohibiting authorities from contradicting file requesters.
Transparency experts across the country are appalled by Seattle’s actions.
“When a government agency sues a record requester, it has a tremendous deterrent effect on the press and the public’s right to information,” Gunita Singh, Legal Fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, DC, told me by E -Mail .
“If even a journalist is prevented from exercising his or her rights under a public record law for fear of defending himself against a public record lawsuit, the chilling effect is already felt,” she said.
The restriction of the free flow of information by targeted requesters also undermines the assumption that records are available to the public “to the detriment not only of the requestor but of society as a whole”.
It is uncommon to sue applicants, but appears to be growing over the past decade amid a broader trend towards government secrecy, Peters said. He said Seattle was an outlier because its counterclaim came after the city’s own ethics investigation found it was in violation of the Public Records Act.
“It is democratically dangerous to sue file requestors because these types of actions pose a clear risk to the free flow of information necessary for the press and the public to oversee and participate in the political process,” he said.
“I just find this whole case very unusual – it’s not one where stocks favor the government,” he added.
Secrecy has progressed since the Watergate era, the height of transparency, said David Cuillier, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and professor of journalism at the University of Arizona.
One reason is that the news industry “has been economically hampered and has not been as aggressive in acquiring public records or lawsuits,” Cuillier told me.
“I think it’s pretty clear that government officials know that the media are less likely to sue now, so they’re more likely to violate the law,” he continued. “I think they are definitely taking advantage of the media’s problems.”
Cuillier, a former reporter and editor, sums it up well:
“Taking it to this next step and counterclaiming is really a slap in the face of democracy and the people of Washington,” he said. “I wouldn’t put up with this if I lived in Seattle – it’s worth protesting on Capitol Hill itself, raise the barricades! Really, we can’t let our government go down the drain like that. “