Sternberg

What a first couple of months 2021 has been. In addition to the COVID vaccine and a prayer for a rebounding economy, yours truly, the Louisiana Press Association and our members have been fighting to bring the sunshine back to Louisiana after a year of COVID-connected closed government.

During the deepest, darkest gloom of the pandemic I wrote to you with resignation that some open meetings laws and even public records laws were going to be ignored—and that we, the media, were just going to have to deal with it. Due to the unprecedented nature of all of it, there were some laws that had to be temporarily bent—and eventually were changed to contemplate this new world we live in.

Even as we strive back toward normalcy, open meetings and public records are still a difficult fight. But this week is Sunshine Week, a project of the News Leaders Association (formerly the American Society of News Editors) and a favorite week of mine. And Sunshine Week comes on the heels of a bunch of big sunshine wins in Louisiana.

First, on the heels of the sexual assault scandals at LSU, Gannett/USA Today, The Advocate and other local media have been fighting for public records which, when produced, revealed serious missteps and questionable decisions by LSU officials. Former LSU Head Coach Les Miles “parted ways” with his new employer – the University of Kansas – due solely to public records that USA Today had to sue to procure. The Kansas Athletic Director lost his job, too, and there could be other firings on the horizon.

Still other reporting from The Advocate has revealed a sexual harassment scandal in the Louisiana attorney general’s office that has already led to one resignation. That case revealed to the country what several newspaper members in Louisiana already knew firsthand: public bodies will sue requestors in Louisiana in an attempt to intimidate them into submission. But the public records The Advocate obtained were critical in revealing the nature of the scandal to the public. They also shined a light on infamous reverse-public-records-suits and allowed us to publicly comment as to why they are a terrible idea.

High-profile missteps like that of the attorney general suing a reporter for requesting records may ultimately lead to some good, though. A number of legislators are now asking why any citizen should be sued for requesting records which are guaranteed under the constitution. Still others are asking why Samantha Brennan had to sue LSU to see her own police report of her sexual assault. These are good questions to ask, and they lead to generative discussion and, hopefully, reform legislation.

My suggestion to you: let’s remind our public officials and our readers that it’s sunshine week by making a good public records request. If you can’t think of any ideas, the Sunshine Week

Headquarters (and all of its resources) can be found online: https://www.newsleaders.org/sunshine-week-about

Or, if that doesn’t help, I’m just a call away!

The LPA Hotline is here for you — call LPA HQ at 225-344-9309 and ask to speak to the Hotline attorney if you need assistance understanding the law of privacy, defamation, open meetings, public records or Louisiana government generally. This column is not intended to be legal advice and should not be substituted for consultation with a qualified attorney.

Scott Sternberg serves as Louisiana Press Association’s General Counsel and practices law with Sternberg, Naccari & White LLC in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.