Most papers don't spend money to pursue civic responsibility

Props to the Tulsa World for put­ting its money where its mouth is in an effort to protect citizens' access to public information. The World isn't the first news organi­zation to sue bureaucratic rascals for information, but this case is one of the most recent.

The World filed suit last month against the U.S. Marshals Service, which had consistently denied public access to jail mug shots of federal inmates, an apparent violation of the Oklahoma Open Records Act. The government claimed its policy was protecting inmates' privacy rights, despite the fact it systematically published mug shots of fugitives and then posted them online once the bad guys were caught.

Oklahoma City's government is denying The Oklahoman and the public the birth dates of two public employees (and the name of one) who were suspended " or in the city's revised wording: "placed on administrative leave." (The distinction is that the Open Records Act doesn't require the city to reveal information about employees on administrative leave. And age is important because it differentiates people: John Doe, 48, the criminal, versus John Doe, 24, your child's teacher.)

Edmond police denied The Edmond Sun's request for a jailhouse video and the dash-cam video of a controversial arrest, claiming ongoing litigation.

The Broken Arrow Board of Education chose not to tell why its legal expenses had skyrocketed from $8,500 to $200,000 from one year to the next.

"I don't really think the public is entitled to know exactly what we spend our legal bills on," Maryanne Flippo was quoted in an FOI Oklahoma account. She was a BA school board member at the time.

She obviously forgot whose money she was spending. Too many public officials take Alexander Haig's approach: "I am in control here."

These are just four of the denials statewide. I would think the access problems had something to do with the water in Oklahoma, but government secrecy has escalated nationwide. Identity theft has become the buzzword for officials trying to hide their handling of the public's business. Never mind that criminals don't rely on public records for their misbehavior. Never mind that Attorney General Drew Edmondson puts on Open Meeting/Open Records seminars for public officials every two years and has consistently told them to err on the side of openness when dealing in gray areas. Never mind that taxpayers have a right to know how public officials conduct business.

The World had the moxie to call government VIPs to task in the courtroom, about the only recourse that seems to get their attention.

Lawsuits can be risky. They're expensive, time-consuming and sometimes moot by the time they run their course. Most newspapers don't sue, and if they do, it's a last resort. Most newspapers simply don't spend the money to pursue civic responsibility, or they're afraid of losing, which sets a bad precedent for the next time.

The New York Times, writing about open court access, quoted Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: "For the last four decades, maybe longer, citizens have been able to rely on small, medium and large news organizations, mostly newspapers, to fight their access battles on their behalf." Now, she said, "access litigations have dried up."

That begs the question: If the media can't " or won't " force government officials to toe the line, who's going to?

Willis, a former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor, once served as faculty adviser for the student-run Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma.

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