Here’s why Iowa Capital Dispatch is suing the governor

December 20, 2021 8:00 am

The Iowa Capitol at night. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch

Iowa Capital Dispatch and our deputy editor, Clark Kauffman, joined other media organizations in a lawsuit filed last week by ACLU of Iowa seeking enforcement of the Iowa Open Meetings and Records Act.

The lawsuit names Gov. Kim Reynolds, her office, a staff attorney and the office’s current and former communications directors as plaintiffs.

As editor of the Capital Dispatch, I wanted to make it clear to our readers and to Iowans what this lawsuit is all about.

First, here’s what the lawsuit is NOT about:

It’s not about partisanship. Iowa Capital Dispatch has no position, official or otherwise, about the governor’s campaign for re-election. As a not-for-profit organization, we can’t support or oppose candidates for public office. If a governor of another party had violated the state open records law to the extent Reynolds’ office has, we would not hesitate to take the same action. We’re not in this to try to make the governor look bad or to influence next year’s election. That’s not our role.

It’s not for money or publicity. The lawsuit doesn’t ask for any damages, just legal fees that would cover the costs for ACLU of Iowa to represent us and other plaintiffs in the case. Iowa Capital Dispatch is a relatively new media outlet that launched in January 2020. We’re already well-established, however, as a go-to source for state government news and investigative reports on topics of public importance. The Washington Post recently featured Iowa Capital Dispatch in a story about our organization’s efforts to fill gaps in news coverage caused by the decline of the newspaper industry.

Being part of a lawsuit like this is a sacrifice, not a publicity stunt. We know people who already distrust media will not believe this is not partisan and some of them may treat us differently. There’s usually a price to be paid for standing up for what’s right.

It’s not about personalities. Speaking for myself only, it would have been an easier decision to pursue this action if I didn’t like the individuals on the other side on a personal level or have as much respect as I do for the difficult jobs they have. But having important, difficult and busy jobs is not an excuse to ignore the law. This isn’t personal and I wish it wasn’t necessary.

Here’s why we felt we had no choice.

It’s about democracy. The Iowa Open Meetings and Records Law is vital to democracy in this state. The law requires government officials, including the governor, to make public records available to anyone who asks. There are exceptions to this law, but officeholders have to respond to all requests for records promptly, and they only have a limited period of time and must cite any legal justification for withholding any records they believe are confidential.

Without the ability to access public documents and information, citizens have to rely on what government officials choose to tell them about what they are doing and how they are spending taxpayers’ money. If elected officials choose not to answer questions from journalists or citizens, the open records law may be the only alternative. If an elected official, like Gov. Reynolds, chooses to ignore legitimate requests for public information for months at a time, as her office has done, there is little recourse besides seeking a court order.

Unless media organizations and First Amendment advocates like ACLU of Iowa and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council are willing to fight for enforcement of this law, it will quickly become meaningless. That would harm every resident of this state.

It’s our responsibility to stand up for press freedom and also for the rights of any citizen to access the information they need to hold government accountable. That’s why we are participating in this lawsuit and why we’ll continue to push for open and transparent government.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.