Letters to The Pit:
Academic encourages The Pit to
force court showdown over records

[Editor's note: This letter refers to City Manager Jim Shipley's decision to withhold information from The Pit's editor because Shipley does not consider The Putnam Pit 'the press.' As we prepare to take him back to court, journalists from across the country have been asked to submit letters. We'll let the courts decide whether the city is right or wrong, but here's the opinion of someone even Shipley would have to admit knows what he's talking about.]

December 21, 1996

To: Geoff Davidian
Publisher and editor
The Putnam Pit

Dear Geoff

Your letter concerning Freedom of Information in Cookeville, Tennessee, was disturbing. I was surprised that anyone would question your credentials as a journalist. The evidence of your experience is convincing: A Master of Arts degree in Journalism from Marquette University, state editor of the Roswell (NM) Daily Record, reporter for The Arizona Republic, The Milwaukee Journal, The Portland (ME) Press-Herald and Houston Chronicle, with assignments covering the Mexico City earthquake, the cocaine-Contra link, President George Bush, and the Gulf War, to name a few.

And now you are publisher of The Putnam Pit , a lively little paper that is critical of local government. Obviously, it carries news of general interest. It is performing a watchdog role that was recognized long ago by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The current problem appears to focus on access to public records, a matter that is covered by the federal Freedom of Information Act and state Open Records legislation. My experience in almost 40 years with The Milwaukee Journal (19 of them as editor in-chief) is that some public officials are reluctant to open records that contain information they don't want divulged. Wisconsin and most other states have listed reasons for protecting information and most of those with which I am familiar are reasonable. Whenever there has been a serious dispute over Open Records or Open Meetings laws in Wisconsin we have settled the matter in court and I am sure that you have that opportunity in Tennessee.

However, limiting inspection to a citizen of the state in which the paper is published (Tennessee in your case) comes as a surprise to me although I have been involved in Freedom of Information activity for decades. Does this mean that a reporter from USA Today who lives in Virginia and is on assignment in Tennessee can't see government records? Or does this just apply to The Putnam Pit? I applaud your challenge of the residency requirement.

Professor Richard H. Leonard
Johnson Hall
Marquette University
PO Box 1551
Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881

[Professor Leonard was editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal from 1967-85. Part of that period he served as national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. From 1986-89, he was editor in residence at Hawaii's East-West Center.]

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