Center for Freedom of Information dedicated to public’s right to know

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Published: May 9,2005

Oxford — The Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information (MCFOI) is a First Amendment coalition dedicated to the public’s right to know. Started in 1999, the center is a resourceful ally for journalists trying to uphold that right.

“We hope we’re doing some good,” executive director Jeanni Atkins, Ph.D., said. “We give advice to journalists and the public and get very positive feedback from them.”

She says the center needs more publicity and is making its presence known through workshops, a legal hotline and handbook, a newsletter produced three times a year, lobbying the Legislature and limited advertising. Questions to the hotline are referred to Leonard D. Van Slyke Jr. of the Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis law firm. He is listed in the “Best Lawyers in America” in First Amendment law and has represented media entities for more than 20 years.

Atkins, an instructor in the Department of Journalism at Ole Miss, worked with a freedom of information organization in Missouri. She knew journalists in Mississippi were having problems with access to public records and meetings when Dan Phillips of The Oxford Eagle came to her with the suggestion of forming the MCFOI. The two of them and others spent a year discussing the approach to take and assembling a board of directors and advisory board.

“We have a good mix of journalists and community groups,” she said. “It’s for all media because all run into the same problems. We haven’t gotten many broadcasters to become members and are making a concerted effort with them.”

The center is a member of a national coalition that acts as an umbrella organization for the 30 states that have such groups. It received grants totaling $35,000 from the national group and the Knight Foundation to begin the MCFOI and receives major support each year from the Mississippi Press Association. There is no staff, and Ole Miss pays Atkins for her time because the Department of Journalism believes in the MCFOI’s mission. The organization has 120 members at three levels of membership and would like to have more.

The legislative liaison for Common Cause, Barbara Powell, also lobbies the state Legislature for MCFOI. Getting enforcement language added to the open meetings law in 2002 was a major success and makes it more difficult for public bodies to skirt the law. The effort to add similar language to the open records law was defeated, but the center will try again next year.

“We must add this language to make it crystal clear,” Atkins said. “It was defeated because law officials worked against it. We need to do more ground work with them to make them understand.”

She said that although the open records law has been on the books for several years, getting access to incident reports has been a problem for journalists because many people don’t know these reports are public records. The MCFOI did a record audit and found that 36 counties were reluctant to let reporters look at records.

“We’ve had some successes and are encouraged,” she said. “We have some friends in the Legislature. There are some who believe strongly in open government and it has improved at all levels.”

She said the Secretary of State’s Office has been helpful with legislation, including the administrative procedures act that passed in 2003 to give greater access to the rules and regulations of government agencies. Now that office is working with MCFOI on a campaign finance disclosure bill.

“It’s not the best one, but we thought we could live with it,” Atkins said. “It didn’t even get out of committee, so we will try again next year.”

In 2004, the center gave its first Open Government Award to Sen. Robert Chamberlin of Southaven for his dedicated efforts on behalf of campaign finance reform. On the other hand, MCFOI presented a Duck Award to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (in absentia) for being a roadblock to open government. Justice Scalia ducked his responsibility to protect the First Amendment free press rights by allowing the seizure and erasure of tapes of a newspaper reporter when he spoke in Hattiesburg last year.

“It got national attention and Justice Scalia wrote a letter of apology,” Atkins said. “Still, it was a violation of the privacy act of 1980 and a lawsuit was filed.”

She said the awards will be made yearly. Atkins believes the biggest challenges facing media are the ongoing problems of being denied access to records and getting into meetings. She cites the overuse of executive sessions and the practice of not providing an agenda or providing a sketchy one.

“We might want to take that on. That’s a problem mentioned by reporters,” she said. “We need detailed agendas provided some days in advance.”

She said the MCFOI will also raise objections to let public boards know their decision-making processes should be included in their meetings.

The center’s newsletter is mailed to an extensive list of journalists, educators, judges, legislators, attorneys and major government agencies. The legal handbook is sent to each newspaper in the state and some government entities but can not be provided free of charge.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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