The mayor of Sacramento, former basketball star Kevin Johnson, is currently suing the city’s alt weekly to stop reporters from obtaining emails that may, or may not, reveal improprieties in his office. The case represents an intersection of two key issues for EFF: transparency and freedom of the press. The mayor’s actions are harmful to both.
The Sacramento News & Review (SN&R) hasn’t done anything wrong—it simply asked for documents, which the city attorney agreed SN&R could have under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). But now it’s facing mounting legal bills as Johnson has taken the newspaper to court to prevent the emails from seeing the light of day.
As SN&R’s attorney—Thomas Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine—writes in its latest filing:
After SN&R made its public records request, [Johnson’s lawyer] contacted the reporter and said he would be named in a lawsuit unless he agreed that the City did not have to produce the request emails. When SN&R “stubbornly refused” to withdraw its request, the Mayor sued it, making good on his attorney’s word and turning the CPRA on its head.
According to SN&R, Gawker Media wanted intervene as a part of interest in the case, since its news site—Deadspin—had also filed a similar public records request. Even though the city is also a defendant in the case, the city opposed this move alongside K.J.’s privately obtained attorneys. That means for now SN&R, with its circulation of 68,000, will have to fight this court battle alone. First Look Media has since come through with a $15,000 grant for SN&R’s legal bills.
Deadspin has an in-depth look at the ongoing Johnson saga (and other, unrelated allegations), but the short version is that suspicions have fallen on Johnson that he may have used city resources to allegedly launch a “coup” within the National Conference of Black Mayors, before starting his own competing organization. The conflict subsequently resulted in extensive litigation. Fulfilling its role as government watchdogs, SN&R wanted to know whether taxpayer money—in the form of staff time and resources—was spent in the political scuffle.
K.J.’s lawsuit has also dragged out the process, effectively blocking reporting for months. The next motion hearing is scheduled for April 2016, where SN&R will ask the court to conduct an in camera review of all the withheld documents, make a determination of what documents are not covered by attorney-client privilege, and order those records immediately released. SN&R is pushing to move up the hearing date.
Rather than clear the air through transparency, Johnson’s decided to bring the newspaper to court. Well, welcome to the Streisand Effect, K.J. The more you try to suppress the press, the more attention you’ll draw—including ours.
(On a side note, Johnson announced this week he won't seek reelection. It is unclear how that will affect the case.)