Court Often Only Option for Mississippi Newspapers Seeking Public Records

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Trying to dig up information these days — from alleged beatings in a county jail to crime statistics for Mississippi’s capital city — is increasingly forcing news organizations to go to court.

Some blame the difficulty in obtaining official records and other documents on the lack of consequences for violating Mississippi’s public records laws, which are hardly enforceable without hiring a lawyer.

“The very foundation of a democracy is informing its citizens, and without information we can’t cast our ballots in an informed way,” said Leonard Van Slyke, a Jackson attorney who specializes in freedom of information issues. “These laws are extremely important and I sometimes believe the general public does not understand how important they are.”

Van Slyke said there are two statutes that deal with public access in Mississippi – the Open Meetings Act and the Mississippi Public Records Act. But there is no administrative body in the state to handle public records complaints.

Both laws have enforcement provisions, but they consist of small fines and injunctions. And, Van Slyke said, even if someone convinces a court that a public body “willfully and knowingly denies access” the most significant penalty would be the assessment of attorney’s fees.

“That’s the big stick because that can be significant money,” Van Slyke said.

Van Slyke represented The Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, in a lawsuit against the city of Jackson and Mayor Frank Melton, who allegedly ripped up records requests and threw them in the trash. The newspaper sought various information, most importantly crime statistics for Jackson, Van Slyke said.

“That case was resolved by the city agreeing to provide all those records, pay attorney’s fees and sign an agreed judgment that will potentially subject the city to contempt proceedings for any future violations,” Van Slyke said.

It’s not unusual for a news organization to resort to a lawsuit in Mississippi because the only criminal penalties a public body could face for withholding public information would be breaking a court’s injunction. But you have to go to court first to get the injunction.

The Sun Herald is suing the state, the Department of Public Safety and Harrison County Sheriff George Payne to obtain video and documents that could provide information about the death of Jessie Lee Williams Jr. Williams, 40, died two days after he was allegedly beaten Feb. 4, 2006, while being held in the Harrison County jail.

Henry Laird, a Sun Herald attorney, said the biggest problem is that the state Legislature has over the years added more exemptions to records that should be open to the public.

“Our Supreme Court has strongly, repeatedly enforced the Open Records Act. The Legislature needs to get rid of the exemptions,” Laird said. “We need some penalty for the law if you violate it. Right now there’s only a $100 fine and attorney’s fees.”

Van Slyke agreed, saying for years news organizations and freedom of information advocates have fought for more access to documents like incident reports for crimes.

“It’s been an ongoing issue with regards to incident reports over the years and the Legislature has never seen fit to rectify that,” he said.

The Associated Press used Freedom of Information Act requests in October in an attempt to obtain the incident report that was filed after a University of Mississippi student was arrested in the death of campus police officer Robert Langley.

The Oxford Police Department and campus police did not respond to the requests. When contacted by telephone last week, Oxford’s police chief said all requests regarding Langley’s death had been forwarded to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the lead agency in the case. MBI declined the request, saying the incident report was part of an “investigatory” file.

“A basic incident report does not seem to me that it would be an investigative report,” Van Slyke said. “You’re only telling about the who, what, when and where.”

As for the agencies not responding to a request, Van Slyke said that is breaking the law.

“But your only recourse is to take them to court and they’re aware of that,” he said.

There have been attempts to beef up the penalties for failure to comply with Mississippi’s so-called sunshine laws, but those efforts usually die quietly in legislative committees.

Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, introduced legislation this year that sought to increase fines and limit a public body’s ability to withhold records. Two such bills died in a Senate Judiciary Committee.

Dawkins said she was hopeful that lawmakers would champion the cause in this election year, but “apparently there aren’t enough progressive people (in the Legislature) that are willing to jump on. It becomes a real barrier for citizens to make good decision when you don’t have access to information.”

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