Local News

Battle Over Media Access Heads To State Supreme Court

Posted March 15, 2005 5:22 a.m. EST

— There is a saying, "Democracy dies behind closed doors." For that reason, media groups across the country created "

Sunshine Week

" to shed light on the importance of open government. WRAL is doing a series of stories on the topic, starting with the battle over access heading to the state Supreme Court.


Alamance News

is a small town weekly known for investigative, sometimes controversial journalism. Publisher Tom Boney has a history of challenging Burlington City Council members over closed meetings.

"We think government decisions of all kinds are done better when they are debated and voted on and decided before the full public," he said.

In 2002, the paper questioned why the city banned reporters from a closed meeting, but allowed the president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

"Ultimately to our great surprise, they sued us," Boney said.

A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the city saying the Open Meeting Law was not violated, but the whole issue of whether Burlington even had the right to sue was not settled.

The state Appeals Court later ruled against Burlington. Judge Wanda Bryant determined preemeptive lawsuits can intimidate people requesting public information, and have a "chilling effect" on freedom of the press.

Burlington leaders referred WRAL to court filings. Attorneys argue Boney seemed "certain to sue" and the city simply wanted the court to clarify its rights. They contend there was "no chilling action" to punish people seeking information, but Boney believes differently.

"If a city council, a public body can sue our newspaper over our challenge to an open meeting and what we think should have been an open meeting, they could sue any citizen who challenges," Boney said.

The case has garnered the attention of a variety of groups. The American Civil Liberties Union, considered a liberal organization, and the conservative John Locke Foundation joined together in a Supreme Court brief. Both back the

Alamance News

. The high court hears the case in April.

According to a new survey conducted on behalf of Sunshine Week, seven out of 10 Americans are concerned about government secrecy. More than half also indicated that there is not enough access to government records. Despite those concerns, four in 10 of the adults said they had heard nothing lately about "sunshine laws." The poll, conducted by Ipsos-Public affairs, has a 3-percent margin of error.