In 2018, broadcast television station WTHR Channel 13 in Indianapolis sued the Hamilton Southeastern School District after school officials refused to disclose information about why they suspended a high school football coach.
The news station spent the next four years battling the school district in court to make the details of the coach’s suspension public. But WTHR’s fight for transparency was worth it. Not only did a circuit court ultimately force the district to turn over the information requested by WTHR, but the Indiana Supreme Court also issued a landmark opinion holding that public agencies across the state must provide specific facts explaining why a public employee is suspended, fired or otherwise disciplined.
WTHR won this lawsuit with free legal support of attorneys from the not-for-profit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has worked more than 50 years to protect First Amendment freedoms and the news-gathering rights of the journalists who bring you the news.
In 2019, the Reporters Committee created the Local Legal Initiative to expand support for local enterprise and investigative reporting. And starting next year, Indiana will have its own Reporters Committee attorney based in the state to provide vital pro bono legal support for Indiana journalists and newsrooms investigating the stories that matter most to their communities.
The Reporters Committee is coming to Indiana at the urging of journalists who work here, especially members of the Hoosier State Press Association who want access to the kind of free legal services they need to overcome a culture of secrecy in state and local government. Launched with generous local support from the Lumina Foundation, the Indiana Local Legal Initiative will help power investigative journalism that increases government transparency, holds public officials accountable and improves our democracy.
The Indiana Local Legal Initiative attorney will strengthen the ability of journalists and newsrooms in the state to sue public agencies and institutions to access records, intervene in court cases to uncover records filed under seal and much more.
This attorney will also help journalists and news outlets directly challenge laws that prevent them from keeping you informed. That’s exactly what Reporters Committee attorneys did in October, when they filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of six journalism and news organizations seeking to block the enforcement of an Indiana law that makes it a crime to approach within 25 feet of a law enforcement officer after being told to step back.
Since launching just a few years ago with a generous investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, our Local Legal Initiative attorneys in Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee have helped journalists and news organizations tell important investigative stories.
These stories exposed how much taxpayer money governments paid to settle legal disputes. They prompted renewed scrutiny into deaths at the hands of law enforcement. And they revealed what happened when school board members met behind closed doors to discuss their response to a school shooting.
Our attorneys’ work at the local level has also helped shape laws and change city policies in favor of increased government transparency.
The Reporters Committee’s goal in launching the Indiana Local Legal Initiative is to help journalists shine a spotlight on the state and local agencies and institutions that affect the lives of people across the state. By hiring an attorney in Indiana, we are signaling to everyone from state lawmakers to local sheriffs that, if they operate in secret, journalists now have access to the legal muscle they need to fight back.
And every battle we win will be your victory, too.•
Townsend is the deputy executive director and legal director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.