Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are guaranteed by our nation’s Constitution, but according to the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, those rights are constantly under attack.
“We’re always fighting this battle, and we have to be vigilant,” the nonprofit’s executive director, Susan Boe, said Friday. Referring to “Don’t Stop the Presses,” a film screening and panel discussion the group will host Monday in Santa Fe, she said, “This is to raise awareness about it.”
The event at the Jean Cocteau Cinema will feature a 55-minute film, The Sun Never Sets — a 2012 documentary about the relentless investigative reporting at Espanola’s Rio Grande Sun weekly newspaper, which was recently the target of an arson attack. The film will be followed by panel discussion featuring the film’s writer, director and producer, Ben Daitz; The Sun’s editor and owner, Bob Trapp; Santa Fe New Mexican editor Ray Rivera and the foundation’s president, Greg Williams.
Daitz, a physician and university professor based in Corrales, said he started reading the Sun years ago and was impressed that the small-town paper was covering the news as well as it did.
Boe said barriers to free speech and freedom of the press are “all over the map” in the state of New Mexico, literally and figuratively.
Boe said the foundation receives between 200 and 300 calls on its hotline each year from citizens, businesses, news media and even public officials across the state seeking help accessing records or public meetings, or to complain that they were denied access.
Some of the most common complaints, Boe said, are that public agencies are unresponsive to requests for public information, that the requested information is not delivered in a timely manner, that documents are withheld under vague exceptions to open-government laws, and that items discussed or acted upon weren’t included on an agenda for a public meeting or are not state clearly enough for the public to know what is being discussed.
Boe said her organization also hears from journalists that public information officers misinterpret state laws that allow them up to 15 days to deliver information, using the statutory maximum as an excuse to delay releasing information that should be released immediately. She also hears from citizens in rural areas where elected officials treat the local government like it is their “own private kingdom.”
In many cases, Boe said, the foundation simply tries to help people access the information they seek. Sometimes the foundation writes letters lambasting public entities for alleged violations. In some cases, it joins with journalists or citizens to sue the agencies blocking access.
The foundation recently joined forces with freelance journalist Peter St. Cyr in a lawsuit that seeks to force the state Department of Health to release the names of people who hold or have applied for one of a very limited number of licenses to produce marijuana for the state’s medical cannabis patients.
“We’ve been beating the drum on that issue for a few years,” said Boe, adding that the foundation could file a lawsuit every day if it had the resources. Since it doesn’t have unlimited resources, the organization tries to take on cases that are representative of bigger problems.
In the Department of Health case, for example, Boe said the larger issue is that government agencies sometimes take it upon themselves to write regulations that keep information secret when there is no law protecting the information from disclosure.
Boe said a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act can be considered a misdemeanor that carries the possible penalty of a $500 fine, but prosecution is rare.
Violation of the state Inspection of Public Records Act carries the potential for a more expensive penalty, Boe said, because violators can be ordered to pay up to $100 a day plus attorney’s fees. But what usually happens, she said, is that the violator will receive a letter from the Attorney General’s Office about the matter.
“So there is public humiliation,” Boe said. “But we’d like to see more teeth in the law.” For example, she said, the foundation would like violators be required to educate their employees about the law.
Boe declined to give a grade to Gov. Susana Martinez, who promised while campaigning to maintain government transparency but whose administration has since been sued more than once over alleged violations of the Inspection of Public Records Act. “We’ve had some issues with her,” Boe said, “and we’ve also had some good breakthroughs with her.”
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said the agency received 33 complaints regarding Open Meetings Act violations this year and 40 complaints involving the Inspection of the Public Records Act. She couldn’t immediately say how many of the cases had resulted in a finding that the law was violated.
Proceeds from Monday’s event will benefit the Foundation for Open Government.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @phaedraann.