Sam Terilli, former general counsel to The Miami Herald and a professor of media law at the University of Miami, agreed there has been a decline in the amount of open government litigation being filed by newspapers over the past 20 years, particularly in cases filed to uphold a principle.
“Across the business, newspapers have had to make adjustments,” he said. “As much as I think litigating issues on principle is important, it’s hard to do as much of that when you’re struggling to find the resources to cover the local school board or city council.”
He recalled complaining about budget cuts in the early 1990s. “Now, looking back, those were the golden days,” he said.
The Times-Union has won praise from other quarters. The paper and Denton himself were recently awarded the James C. Adkins/Sunshine Litigation Award by the Florida-based First Amendment Foundation. The award has only been given twice since 2009, and in the past it has gone to media law attorneys. Denton was personally honored because he served as the plaintiff in the pension lawsuit. Florida law requires open meetings suits be brought by Florida citizens and the Times-Union’s owner, Morris Communications, is based in Georgia.
Denton told me last week his publisher—which hasn’t recovered legal fees in any of these cases yet, though it’s seeking to do so—has fully backed the paper’s efforts. Not everyone feels the same way, of course. Last June, when the pension-talks lawsuit was filed, Denton explained the paper’s thinking to readers:
We do not like suing our own city, including the mayor whom we endorsed for election. It costs us money, it costs the taxpayers money to defend, and it distracts all of us from addressing important public issues, including the police and fire pension plan that is draining the city budget and starving other public needs.
But the lawsuit is not about the substance of the proposed settlement or about the provisions, costs and benefits of the pensions being earned by our police officers and firefighters.
It is about a much more important principle: the right of citizens to watch and, if they wish, participate in the resolution of public issues—in this case one that involves hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and the welfare of, and our fidelity to, our community’s first responders.
This is a battle Denton’s been fighting for 40 years. In the column, he recalled how he had sworn out a criminal complaint against the entire board of trustees of a local public hospital for violating the open meetings law back when he was a cub reporter at The Anniston Star in Alabama.
This post has been updated.
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