Funds join fight for public records


The Society of Pro­fessional Jour­nal­ists and the National Freedom of Information Coalition are joining forces – and legal war chests – to help citizens and journalists fight for public records.

The two groups will band together to help litigants who sue for access to government information.

The Freedom of Information Coalition can provide court fees and SPJ help for attorney fees.

Both organizations also will use their combined national networks of journalists and citizens to apply public pressure to government agencies that flaunt the law.

“This is such an exciting collaborative project, one that will lend significant weight to our collective efforts in preserving our right of government oversight and accountability,” said Barbara Petersen, NFOIC president. “I’m honored to be part of it.”

As part of the partnership, SPJ and the Freedom of Information Coalition will:

• Have staff and volunteers from both organizations solicit applications and monitor public record battles at the state and federal levels for worthy cases.

• Give priority to cases that have a strong legal basis, have the ability to establish good case law, and will help citizens and journalists, regardless of the profession or standing of the plaintiff.

• Write or join amicus curiae briefs and/or intervene in cases where appropriate.

• Coordinate publicity and advocacy.

• Solicit other partners, when merited, such as state coalitions and other national access organizations.

“More than ever, it’s essential for groups to unite in helping citizens fight for government information,” said David Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman. “Together we are much more powerful against a system that is not weighted in the public’s favor.”

The SPJ Legal Defense Fund was created in 1972 to fight for the First Amendment, primarily for public records and open meetings.

Litigants apply for funds, and the applications are considered by a six-member committee, aided by SPJ’s attorney.

The committee can provide grants of up to $5,000, and larger amounts are considered by the SPJ Board of Directors.

The fund has about $75,000 available and is replenished by donations, interest and an annual auction. In 2014 the SPJ Board approved the creation of an endowed advocacy fund that can also be used for litigation. The endowment currently generates about $4,000 annually.

The Knight FOI Fund was created by the National Freedom of Information Coalition in 2010 through a grant from the Knight Foundation to help litigants fight for open government.

The fund pays for court costs, filing fees, depositions and related expenses, typically $2,000-$3,000 per case.

The fund, currently at $444,000, does not pay for attorney fees nor dictate what attorney is used in the case. The fund stipulates that if the grantee wins and receives an award then they must repay the coalition. A Litigation Committee decides the merits of applications.