Colorado media groups say Interior Secretary violated spirit of 1st Amendment by barring reporters from public sage grouse meeting
January 27, 2014
Steamboat Springs — What was intended to be a positive and constructive dialogue about the future of a small, sensitive bird in Northwest Colorado has morphed into a broader discussion about the freedom of the press in Colorado.
The Colorado Press Association and the Craig Daily Press on Monday sent a letter through their media attorney to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell expressing their disappointment that Jewell’s staff barred reporters from attending a public meeting in Craig about the future of the sage grouse.
Jewell’s staff twice turned away Craig Daily Press reporter Erin Fenner from a round-table discussion that included community members, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a quorum of Moffat County commissioners and other local officials.
The meeting was posted as public by the commissioners.
Many who were in attendance said Jewell’s visit and talk on Jan. 22 were well received, but the exclusion of reporters has invited criticism from some local officials and media outlets including the Denver Post and the Daily Press.
A spokesperson for Hickenlooper said Jewell had requested the press not attend the meeting because her office wanted to promote an "open and frank discussion."
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"Certainly we have a vested interest in reporters’ access to government meetings," Colorado Press Association Executive Director Samantha Johnston said Monday. "We’re the eyes and ears of the public, and when we’re not allowed to be that, then the public is less informed.”
She said her organization fields phone calls on a daily basis from newspapers asking about such things as executive sessions they feel weren’t legal or for help getting records that institutions are withholding.
“It doesn’t get better unless the people who are passionate about it are vigilant all the time,” she said. “You can’t ignore issues like this.”
The letter penned by media attorney Steve Zansberg asks Jewell to take steps in the future to ensure reporters aren’t prevented from attending meetings that should be open to all members of the public.
Jewell's Director of Communications Kate Kelly responded to the letter Tuesday evening, stating that the secretary apologizes for the breakdown in communication that day.
Craig Daily Press Managing Editor Noelle Leavitt Riley said she hopes the letter ultimately will encourage Secretary Jewell to not bar reporters from meetings in other small communities she visits.
"I think she put everybody in a really bad position the way she handled dealing with the press," Leavitt Riley said.
The secretary's office said it will boost efforts to better work with the media.
"The Department of Interior strives to maintain an open and transparent relationship with the press and the public, and we sincerely regret the incident and any roll we had in miscommunication. As you suggest, we are redoubling our efforts to coordinate with local government offices to ensure transparency and respect for important press freedoms," Kelly said in a formally written statement to Leavitt Riley and Press Association Executive Director Samantha Johnston.
Jewell, a federal official, is not obligated to abide by Colorado’s open meeting laws, and Zansberg, who was contacted by Leavitt Riley after the Jan. 22 incident, issued the opinion that no open meeting law violation had taken place.
However, leaders of the Press Association and the Daily Press said that preventing reporters from attending a meeting that should have been public under Colorado law violated the media’s First Amendment rights.
Zansberg, who recently was elected president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, attributed the "unfortunate set of events" to a "breakdown in communication between the Moffat County Commissioners" and Jewell’s staff.
John Kinkaid, one of the Moffat County commissioners who attended the sage grouse discussion, said he was caught off-guard when reporters were being barred from the meeting.
When he realized the journalists weren’t being allowed in, he reached out to the Daily Press staff to invite them to come back.
But they were stopped again.
"I’ve not been around a situation like this before. I was caught off-guard, and I thought about going to the door and physically escorting (Fenner) through, but I didn’t want to crank off the Secretary of Interior and blow the meeting, because the stakes of the economy were so high," Kinkaid said Monday. "I was conflicted about what to do."
Click here to read more about the sage grouse discussion in Craig.