Today, First Look Media is announcing a Press Freedom Litigation Fund grant to the Sacramento News & Review (SN&R). The $15,000 grant will be used to offset the legal costs the publication is rapidly accruing from a lawsuit filed by the Sacramento Mayor, and former NBA star, Kevin Johnson.
A little background on this somewhat complicated case. Mayor Johnson became president of the National Conference of Black Mayors (NCBM) in 2013, and spent the next year battling another faction for control of the group. Ultimately, Mayor Johnson led NCBM into bankruptcy and then resigned to form a competing organization. Public employees working for the City of Sacramento and political volunteers assisted Mayor Johnson throughout his campaign at NCBM, largely communicating via a private Gmail account maintained by the Mayor's office. The SN&R served a public records request to the city for these emails, but the mayor and the NCBM bankruptcy trustee claimed that many of these communications were protected by attorney-client privilege.
In a highly unusual move, Mayor Johnson (in his capacity as former President of NCBM), the NCBM, and the bankruptcy trustee, sued the Sacramento News & Review and the Sacramento City Attorney to stop the public release of the emails. The publication argues that the records the mayor is trying to keep secret should be made public under the California Public Records Act, regardless of whether the mayor was using private email servers or accounts.
Although the media and political reach of this case may be regionally focused, it bears a significant public interest. If the mayor succeeds in blocking public review of emails sent in his capacity as mayor that relate to the use of public resources, it could set a precedent that undermines the public's right of access to governmental information. By suing the SN&R, Mayor Johnson has dramatically raised the costs for the paper to assert its rights, threatening press freedom and the ability of the citizens to be informed about the actions of its elected officials. First Look Media believes that transparency, a free press, and an informed citizenry are vital to democracy, and that public records requests such as the one made by the SN&R is an important tool in this effort.
We'll keep you updated on the progress of this case.
About First Look Media Press Freedom Litigation Fund
Launched in July 2014, First Look Media's Press Freedom Litigation Fund was designed to strengthen the ability of journalists and others to pursue legal fights where a substantial public interest is at stake. Grants under the program are used to fund challenges to government policies or actions that restrict press freedoms or denials of freedom of information act requests; motions to quash subpoenas seeking source information or journalistic material; defamation cases where the underlying report concerns a matter of public interest; access cases to closed proceedings or sealed documents; and amicus efforts in support of press freedom.
To date, the PFLF has provided grants to support the legal appeals of U.S. Army intelligence analyst turned whistleblower Chelsea Manning, Miranda v. Secretary of State for the Home Department and the defense of a defamation case launched against Sahara Reporters and its editor Patrick Sowore by Nigerian Senator Musiliu Obanikoro. Journalists or lawyers who are seeking such support should contact us via email at [email protected] and should include a proposed litigation budget as well as a description of how the litigation at issue furthers press freedom.
First Look Media has also provided grants in support of press freedom to Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Electronic Frontier Foundation; the Freedom of the Press Foundation; and the First Amendment Coalition among other recipients.