A judge awarded five Colorado news outlets $30,000 in attorney fees in an autopsy open-records case

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Looks like taxpayers in conservative El Paso County could see their local government fork over $30,000 in money to five news outlets after a judge ruled the county coroner should have released documents to media about the fatal shooting of a sheriff’s deputy.

Even better (read as: worse): “The county’s bill could have been capped at roughly $2,000 had it not opposed the media consortium’s initial reimbursement request — leading to further litigation,” reports The Gazette, which is one of the newsroom’s that sought the records. The paper’s editor, Vince Bzdek, said it is “important that government officers be reminded — often — that they work for citizens, and that laws are in place that clearly state those citizens have the right to know about autopsies and other public records in criminal cases like this.”

“Together, we spent close to $30,000 on this fight for transparency — a battle against the county’s taxpayer-funded lawyers, who were attempting to seal public records related to an embarrassing and tragic incident,” wrote J. Adrian Stanley, news editor of The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly and vice president of the Colorado Springs Press Association. “So,” she also also wrote, “why did several media outlets — which normally compete against each other — come together to fight for a couple of autopsy reports? We all share a common belief that the public — you! — have a right to know what your government is up to.”

The Indy’s publisher, Amy Sweet, said, “The media’s first responsibility is to our readers, which includes shining a light on government activities. The Indy will always fight for the public’s right to know.”

The Independent and The Gazette “were joined by KDVR-TV. KKTV-TV, KOAA-TV and KUSA-TV and hired Denver media attorney Steven Zansberg,” reported The Colorado Springs Business Journal.

Here’s the background, from The Gazette:

The battle blew up last year after then-county Coroner Dr. Robert Bux refused to release the autopsy report for Flick, 34, who was shot in the line of duty Feb. 5, 2018, by 18-year-old suspected car thief Manuel Zetina, who was killed in return fire by deputies. Colorado law classifies autopsies as public records that should be released except under “extraordinary” circumstances. The County Attorney’s Office, arguing on Bux’s behalf, tried to make the case that releasing the autopsy would do “substantial injury to the public. … The Coroner’s Office has invoked “substantial injury to the public” in withholding autopsies in seven cases in 2017 and 2018, mostly arguing that their release could impair an ongoing investigation. The Gazette ultimately prevailed in obtaining the documents in several of those cases after continuing litigation.

I reached out to Zansberg, who represents news outlets across Colorado and handled this case, and asked him to sum up what it means in for context.

He said this isn’t something only journalists should be paying attention to. The judge’s “well-reasoned ruling should be read carefully by all county coroners in Colorado,” he said. “It makes clear that autopsy reports must be released to the public (even in redacted form, if necessary) during an ongoing criminal investigation, unless there are truly ‘unique’ and ‘extraordinary circumstances, akin to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, that the legislature could not have foreseen occurring.”

Colorado just got itself some new anti-SLAPP and media literacy laws

This week, Gov. Jared Polis signed a new law making Colorado the 29th state with anti-SLAPP protections that can help newsrooms avoid costly legal battles.

“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation have become an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing critics from exercising their First Amendment rights,” writes The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “A litigant, such as a subject of a news story, may want to sue a news outlet to force the outlet to incur costs defending itself in court. An anti-SLAPP law is meant to provide a remedy from SLAPP suits. Having anti-SLAPP protections in place is essential for news gathering because it allows journalists to report without concern for the financial consequences to their newsroom.”

More from the RCFP:

Colorado’s new anti-SLAPP law allows defendants to file a special motion to dismiss a case when they believe the case is a frivolous SLAPP suit. Notably, there is a provision that allows a defendant to have an immediate interlocutory appeal — a defendant may press pause on a lawsuit and directly appeal to a higher state court before discovery in the lawsuit can begin, which helps prevent the costly discovery process. The new law also creates an expedited timeline to resolve the legal dispute. Once the special motion to dismiss is filed within 63 days of the original complaint, a hearing must happen within 28 days and the court then decides whether the plaintiff has a substantial likelihood to prevail on their initial claim. If the plaintiff cannot meet this burden, the special motion to dismiss is granted.

“In addition, the law allows defendants who prevail on the special motion to dismiss to recover attorney fees and court costs,” the RCFP reports. (I’ve written for Columbia Journalism Review about how California’s anti-SLAPP law helped a nonprofit news site prevail in court.)

Also this week, Polis signed a new law “to create a media literacy advisory panel in the state education department to study how to educate Colorado students about the role of the news media,” according to The Associated Press. The new law creates an advisory panel at the Colorado education department to research media literacy with the help of a consultant. Once studied, the panel will send recommendations to the House and Senate education committees. Basically, it’s just a start, with maybe more to come. The bill’s sponsor, Rep Lisa Cutter, “hopes to sponsor legislation in the future using these recommendations to implement media literacy studies in elementary and secondary education,” according to a news release from a House Democratic Caucus spokesperson.

Already, at least one organization in Colorado attacking the new law, albeit in a way that is not, shall we say, well informed. The Colorado Times Recorder, a website that seeks to publish journalism with a progressive orientation, recently wrote that the Jefferson County Republican Party shared an item on Facebook saying the new law would “control our children, their beliefs, and what they post on social media.” (Narrator voice: It won’t.) One commenter on the post responded with one word: “communism.” Two others invoked Hitler. Because that’s social media discourse today in some circles, apparently.

Read more about what the new media literacy law actually does here.

ATTN: Media-thinker-industrial-complex: Coloradoan and PULP subscription help

Last week, I noted in this newsletter how journalists at the Gannett-owned Coloradoan newspaper in Fort Collins have figured out how many digital subscribers they need to make their newsroom sustainable. Their goal at the time was to sign up just 9,000 more readers in a city with a population of more than 150,000. Seems doable, right? So how are they going to get there? I highlighted one way they are trying to lure in subscribers by deploying their own journalists to make a case about why they do what they do.

But there has to be others, and there are so many groups and initiatives out there studying how best news outlets can connect with readers and get them to become members, subscribe, or otherwise pay the costs of news gathering and publishing. I think Fort Collins could make a great case study for one of them. Come in and help this newsroom out. Test some things. Put some money and people power into it. See what works. See if it’s replicable. Why I’d like to see this is because you have a newsroom that has done the calculations to find out what it needs to pay its remaining journalists to cover the community, and, hopefully, ward off more cuts from a cost-cutty owner. They have the number and they made it public. And, say they do get where they’re hoping to by a decent timetable— or, better yet, beyond that— and the initiative comes in large part from the newsroom. Then, if Gannett or whatever Gannett/GateHouse merger monster ends up owning the paper enacts newsroom cuts anyway, well, then that is a story.

Meanwhile, publisher John Rodriguez at PULP newsmagazine in Pueblo says he’s looking for 4,000 subscribers to help him hire a reporter for his small independent newsroom.

I wonder if there could be an interesting two-pronged project for Colorado here. These are two very different communities and very different kinds of print and digital publications. They both need help getting to a place they think will make a real difference. Help them figure out what works and how, and see if it could it work elsewhere.

Colorado is on the cover of The Nation. It’s not a good look.

On the cover of The Nation magazine this week is a story by Brooklyn-based journalist Aviva Stahl who spent 18 months investigating a Colorado prison where she reports “hunger-striking inmates have been force-fed and barred from sharing their ordeal with the outside world.”

From the piece:

This investigation leaves little doubt that many of the human rights abuses perpetrated against hunger strikers at Guantánamo, often to widespread public outrage, are also occurring on American soil on a regular basis.

And, more specifically,  on the soil in “H Unit at Florence ADX, or the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado.”

More from the story:

Decades ago, many medical associations rejected the force-feeding of mentally competent prisoners as a violation of prisoners’ bodily autonomy. Yet the brutal procedures taking place in Colorado, which many countries condemn for deliberately inflicting harm, have been hidden from the US public completely—until now.

… Force-feeding is dangerous. In hunger strikes as early as 1917 and as recently as 1992, prisoners died as a result. The cause of death was usually from the tube being placed into the striker’s trachea instead of the esophagus, so the liquid entered the lungs rather than the stomach, causing the person to suffocate or develop pneumonia.

… Since 9/11, journalists have been denied entry to the ADX facility almost without exception. Not even the UN special rapporteur on torture has been allowed in.

Stahl was able to report her story that ran in partnership with Type Investigations and included 13 hours on the phone with an inmate, correspondence with four others, and FOIA requests, in part because of support from the Fund for Constitutional Government and the Puffin Foundation. “I started reporting this story because I wanted to know how the federal Bureau of Prisons operates when it is unshackled from the fear of public scrutiny,” she writes.

Readers in Colorado might have heard of the H unit if they read a cover story in Westword last summer headlined “At the Federal Supermax, When Does Isolation Become Torture?” Reporter Alan Prendergast wrote the place is a “prison within a prison, yet that doesn’t quite convey the unique conditions of confinement there. It’s been called the only known black site on American soil, but it’s more like a black hole, a void where men are slowly buried alive in layers of isolation until they vanish entirely.”

In public-funding-for-local-news debate, what about the SCFD model?

Following last week’s news that Longmont voters won’t be asked to consider new taxes for a library district with a potential local news component, political analyst and pollster Floyd Ciruli reached out with a similar idea to consider.

“One possible model to examine is the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), which provides money for major and smaller cultural organizations with no influence on their selection of programs, exhibits or their missions in general,” he said. “But the Board still provides transparency and accountability over the tax dollars.” The benefit over a library district, he said, is that the SCFD model can use a sales tax, “and the operational rules and board composition can be designed as appropriate.”

Denverite has explained how these SCFDs work, describing them as “an enormous, complicated thing.”

Simon Galperin, our resident expert on so-called Community Information Districts— public funding models for local news— calls the idea “clearly a fit for financing” but not so much for a structure that would guarantee effectiveness and accountability. “Unfortunately,” he went on, “there are no public funding mechanisms that completely remove local government representation from decision making in any publicly-funded organization. But we can design for minimizing local government’s decision-making authority and maximize public decision making through choices large and small. That could look like public elections for the board, participatory budgeting, and by putting regular folks in the production seat, whether it’s through documenting public meetings, convening conversations, or contributing to the community Wiki.”

Ciruli, who helped start SCFDs decades ago when major institutions in Colorado were in financial trouble, says he believes looking at them as an idea for potentially helping fund local news sources should be examined. “It’s the kind of thing that ought to be polled,” he said.

Anyone else have experience with SCFDs in Colorado and have an opinion about how it might work in the sphere of potential public funding for local news?

An RTD publicity idea leads to a debate over ‘propaganda’ vs. agencies telling ‘their stories’

Speaking of taxing districts and newsrooms, on June 4, Colorado Public Radio transportation and growth reporter Nathaniel Minor was live-tweeting from a board meeting of the Regional Transportation District where the RTD’s new public relations boss was giving a presentation. As part of her efforts on behalf of the RTD, Minor reported she is “announcing an ‘RTD newsroom,’ to put out their own stories.” “It won’t just be positive stories,” Minor reported her saying.

The online news bulletin caught the eye of Denver Post reporter Noelle Phillips, who tweeted:

Lynn Bartels, the former Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post politics reporter who later became the spokeswoman for Colorado’s Republican secretary of state and ran a politics-news-type blog out of the office, chimed in, saying she disagreed. Government agencies “have to tell their stories” because “there aren’t enough reporters,” she argued. “But you have to be honest. At the SOS we admitted our mistakes.”

Colorado journalist Kara Mason joined the fray. “I’m sure it couldn’t be that we aren’t telling some of those stories because they just aren’t newsworthy,” she said. “Just because an agency thinks they have a story doesnt really mean they do.”

The online back-and-forth reached the top of The Denver Post editorial food chain when the paper’s editor Lee Ann Colacioppo weighed in. “But it’s still government propaganda,” she said. “There’s no effort to dig deeper, be a little critical, etc. It’s PR. It’s good PR perhaps, but still PR.” Colacioppo said she had been having “a variation on this discussion with a person who now does government PR but still describes herself on twitter as a journalist. The two are not compatible.” Indeed they are not.

Colorado journalism jobs galore

Speaking of real journalism jobs, are you a journalist looking for work (or a job change) in Colorado?

Meanwhile, the journalism department at the University of Colorado in Boulder is looking for a non-tenure-track scholar in residence to begin in August who will “teach courses in the Department of Journalism — two courses during one semester of the academic year and three in the other semester.”

*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HEREImage by Marco Verch for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

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