PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — In its own polite, Midwestern fashion, The Des Moines Register is mad as heck and is not going to take it anymore.
After Iowa officials refused to release records showing alleged abuses by state employees, the paper is pursuing dual lawsuits to force the records into public view. In one case, the Register is even suing the state’s new public information board, formed expressly to address years of complaints about records transparency.
The legal moves, coupled with related efforts at coalition-building, are part of an avowedly more assertive posture by the paper to shift the state’s political culture toward openness—a stance that is welcomed by open-government advocates in Iowa, even if its prospects for success are uncertain.
One of the suits, filed against the Iowa Department of Public Safety, seeks police records of an incident last fall in Worth County in which an inmate was Tasered multiple times and died while in custody—a death that the state medical examiner ruled a homicide. The other suit involves a 2012 video that shows an employee at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo slamming a female inmate’s head against a wall; the employee has been fired and the home has been closed, but the state has refused the Register’s requests to release the video on the grounds of protecting the alleged victim’s confidentiality, and the Iowa Public Information Board ruled in the state’s favor by a vote of 6-3 in February.
In late March, a month after that ruling, the Register reported that it was taking both the DPS and the IPIB to court. Two months later, the gears of justice are grinding slowly. The Register’s attorney, Michael Giudicessi, says the court has not issued a scheduling order or trial date in either case, and the public information board case in particular is not likely to see much action until the fall.
“The pace of these cases demonstrates a major shortcoming of access laws,” Giudicessi told me in an email. “While public officials withhold access in a heartbeat, corrective actions by the press and the public take months and years.”
Rejoining the fight
The push to take the disputes to court came from Amalie Nash, the paper’s editor and vice president for audience engagement. Nash, who joined the Register from the Detroit Free Press only earlier this year, said she is intent on upholding the paper’s “longstanding tradition of standing up for public records.”
The state is “fortunate to have an organization like the Register that will put its money where its mouth is,” said Chris Mudge of the Iowa Newspaper Association, “because oftentimes newspapers don’t have the resources to do that.” The association plans to file an amicus brief in support of the Register in the case against the public information board.
Herb Strentz, a former head of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and one of the deans of the state’s transparency movement, pointed out that the Register has not been the only news organization in the state to take on these battles. He credits Michael Gartner, a former Register editor who now writes for the alt-weekly Cityview, with successfully suing the Iowa Public Radio board last year “for blatant violation of the open-meetings law in the firing of its executive director” when the Register and others did not take up the case.
But in an email interview, Strentz praised the Register for taking on its current court fights, hearkening back to what he considers the paper’s heyday as a transparency advocate in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It is good to have today’s Register continuing the fight,” Strentz said. “Any newspaper or broadcast station fighting for access deserves our praise because editors and news directors have so many budget pressures to cope with.”
Transparency reform falls short of advocates’ hopes
In filing the suits, the Register is in effect arguing that long-running concerns over transparency have not been addressed, despite reform efforts.
In 2012, the state received an “F” for public access to information in a study by the Center for Public Integrity and other groups. (The study was supported by the Omidyar Network, which is a major funder of the United States Project.) Indifferent enforcement of public-records laws was a continuing frustration to advocates, journalists, and even some lawmakers. “Someone from the public would complain, and the government’s response was, ‘Sue us,’” Lyle Muller of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism told me last year.
That same year, the state took a key step toward greater transparency with the creation of the Iowa Public Information Board—the culmination of a six-year lobbying battle by media and open-government advocates. The board, with representatives from government, media, and the general public, would act to expedite records requests and, uniquely among such state bodies, would have enforcement power to make government agencies comply with the law.
But, Strentz wrote in a recent Register op-ed, the board “has not yet lived up to the optimism of its advocates.”