DENVER – As Colorado's fall neared in 2021, reporter Jesse Paul wanted to peek behind the curtain of state prisons, submitting a request for a swath of documents regarding inmate deaths, injuries and staff violations – public records made available to ensure government transparency.
But then the bill arrived, and Paul, a reporter at The Colorado Sun, shot off a cheeky email to his editors: “You guys cool if I drop $245,000 on this?”
In a concession many journalists know well, Paul gutted his admittedly large request, leaving most of those government documents shrouded from the public's sight. Those types of financial barriers are partly why Colorado state lawmakers are considering legislation that would give the news media privileges when requesting public records, including lower fees and stricter deadlines for records custodians to produce documents.
But the draft legislation kicked off a hullabaloo on Twitter, with some concerned that favoring news media was unfair, while others found the mere idea of politicians defining who is and who isn't a journalist unsettling.
Most states do not differentiate between the general public and media organizations, and the Colorado draft bill's definition of the news media would effectively exclude news startups in their first year of operation – raising their public records costs.
The proposal comes as some states push in the opposite direction. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seeking an agenda that may limit access to public records and lawmakers across the country are trying to shield the disclosure of personal information for elected officials and public employees.
The Colorado proposal has yet to be introduced and could change as the final kinks get worked out, said Democratic state Sen. Chris Hansen, the bill’s sponsor. Hansen, in defense of the definition, said burgeoning news groups would still be able to submit requests and the temporary higher cost wouldn’t be a “significant burden.”
Broadly, the proposal is considered a step in the right direction by media groups. It would require stricter retention of government email records, charge news media half the cost billed to the general public – roughly capped at $15.00 for every hour spent producing the records – and ensure certain reports from investigations into sexual harassment by elected officials be publicly available.
To Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and who has helped draft the bill, said the proposal isn't perfect but will make a dent in the problem. A more robust solution, he said, would be better funding for governments to respond to records requests.
The cost of Paul's quarter-million-dollar request still probably wouldn't be addressed by this bill, Roberts said. Those documents likely fall under a separate category for criminal records, and Roberts is still on a mission to address prohibitive costs.
“There doesn’t seem to be political will to just reduce the cost for everyone,” said Roberts.
Larry Ryckman, editor of The Colorado Sun, said that while he had misgivings about politicians defining what qualifies as news media, he was generally pleased with any expansion of public records access.
“A healthy democracy depends on a free press, that we will ask questions, that we will dig in, and that we will verify facts,” Ryckman said. “We cannot hold government and government agencies and officials accountable without access to documents.”