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An important win for press freedom in Iowa
We shouldn't have to sue to get a response from the governor
The Iowa Supreme Court has handed Iowa media outlets an important win, and in so doing, sent a strong message to Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. The court made clear that the Governor, and other public officials, cannot refuse to respond to Freedom of Information requests by unreasonably delaying production of the records.
Briefly, the background involves FOI requests made by blogger Laura Belin at Bleeding Heartland, Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director Randy Evans, and Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman. Starting in April of 2020, they filed eight FOI requests with the governor’s office, aimed at researching possible stories. The governor’s office simply didn’t respond. There was no acknowledgement that the requests had been received – just complete silence. The reporters sent follow-up requests, which were also ignored. Crickets. In exasperation, after waiting more than a year for any kind of response, the journalists filed suit against the governor in December 2021. Within days of the lawsuit being filed, the governor finally provided some of the records. The governor’s lawyers then asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming they had responded to the FOI request and thus no harm, no foul. The district court judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit, because the issue here is whether future governors can simply ignore FOI requests unless the requesters go to court.
The governor appealed the ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court, which has now ruled that the long delay and lack of response from the governor amounts to ignoring Iowa’s open records law, which benefits ALL Iowans, not just journalists. Anyone can file an FOI request for public records. The government is required to respond in a timely manner and provide the records.
You can read a lot more background about the case elsewhere, but I wanted to give my opinion of what’s happened. In full disclosure, I note that proceeds from paid subscriptions to this column are donated to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and I served on the council many years, so I’m hardly an unbiased observer.
Here’s my take: the governor’s lack of response to the FOI requests is all part of her campaign to stiff-arm mainstream media outlets, I assume as an appeal to her hard-right base. The evidence is overwhelming – participating in only one debate with her opponent last year, refusing to sit for newspaper editorial board interviews, not holding a news conference for months on end. It’s not hard to imagine staff members in the governor’s office, perhaps even Reynolds herself, receiving the FOI requests and deciding to just stall and not respond. It’s as if they were saying, what are they gonna do? Sue us? And when the reporters DID sue, suddenly the records were handed over. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.
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All three journalists are justified in filing the lawsuit because of the delay. In the case of Laura Belin at Bleeding Heartland, the governor’s office has no one to blame but themselves because everyone in state government completely ignores her requests for information, leaving her few options but to file FOI requests. Her other requests for information or comment fall on deaf ears. Republicans running the Iowa Legislature refuse to give her a press credential. It’s clear the word has gone out from on high to stonewall her.
The Supreme Court sent the lawsuit back to district court for a full hearing, so the plaintiffs can’t say a whole lot. Laura Belin said in a statement, “The pandemic placed unusual demands on many people, and we understood it might take officials a little longer to process records requests. But the delays continued for many months, long after Governor Reynolds had ordered state government staff back to their offices and encouraged Iowans to resume their normal lives.”
Iowa FOI Executive Director Randy Evans said in a statement, “No other custodian of government records in Iowa would be allowed to sidestep the requirements of public records law for a year and a half without legal consequences, and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council is gratified the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear the governor cannot disregard the law, either.”
In a rich twist, the Supreme Court ruling cited a Drake Law Review article written ten years ago that praises Iowa’s public records law. Several lines from that article: “Providing information quickly and efficiently demystifies government.” And, “Transparency guards against an arbitrary and capricious element in bureaucratic decision making.” The author? A young attorney in then-Governor Branstad’s office named Brenna Findley. You know her better as Iowa’s new Attorney General Brenna Bird, who has made Reynolds’ dream of wanting “my own attorney general” come true.
Let’s hope Governor Reynolds heeds advice from her new AG and stops trying to stonewall reporters by ignoring their requests for information. Me, I’m not holding my breath.
Please enjoy other viewpoints from these writers in the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative: