Oklahoma is one of five states selected by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to receive pro bono legal support to assist news organizations in pursuing public records and access to meetings and in defending against legal actions.
The Reporters Committee announced Tuesday that it had chosen Oklahoma, Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee as the initial sites of its Local Legal Initiative, which is being funded through a $10 million investment by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of its pledge to double its commitment to strengthening local journalism. The Reporters Committee intends to expand the program beyond the first five states, and additional funding will be sought to grow and sustain it.
The Committee, based in Washington, D.C., will hire an attorney in each state to work with partner news organizations to bolster their efforts to obtain public records, gain access to public meetings, and defend against legal threats and lawsuits. Each lawyer will also offer other pre-publication reviews of content, which is common in journalism for assessing legal risks.
“We are eager to expand our legal services to help more local journalists pursue stories that inform and strengthen their communities,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “We are looking forward to working closely with our partners in each of these states to support thriving local journalism.”
Oklahoma news outlets involved in the program include the Oklahoma Press Association, which has 175 newspaper members; the Native American Journalists Association, which serves Indigenous journalists and promotes more informed coverage of tribal communities; nonprofit investigative news organizations Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier; StateImpact Oklahoma, a reporting team sponsored by public radio stations; the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, which has 165 member radio stations and 25 television stations; Freedom of Information Oklahoma, which promotes open and transparent government, and the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“The Local Legal Initiative is revolutionary because it will help restore the rights of citizens who want access to records kept by their government, and provide the financial backing to challenge bureaucracy and violations of Oklahoma’s transparency laws and principles,” said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.
Native American Journalists Association President Tristan Ahtone said, “We believe the opportunity will encourage both mainstream and tribal media to attain the highest standards of professionalism and improve coverage of Indigenous communities.”
The five launch states were selected from more than 45 submissions that the Reporters Committee received last year from more than 30 states, regions and territories nationwide.
“The enthusiasm and responses we received from across the country make clear that there is a significant need for pro bono legal assistance for local journalists nationwide,” said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee. “At a time when important local reporting is routinely stymied, we stand ready to help journalists and news organizations overcome the legal roadblocks they too often face.”