The Tulsa World went to court a few weeks ago.
With long-time attorney Schaad Titus representing us, we argued that the public had a legal right to court records that explained the outcome of a controversial case against four young men from Bixby.
The case was a difficult one, and understandably painful for five families; the victim, and those who were accused and adjudicated for an amended charge of assault with a dangerous weapon.
Our courts reporter Samantha Vicent and a private citizen had each filed Open Records request in January, following the process set out in Oklahoma’s Open Records Act when it was established back in 1985.
The requests were granted on Feb. 7. When several attorneys objected to that ruling in phone calls to the judge and to the Tulsa World, a hearing was set.
That’s when we called Mr. Titus.
In an almost two-hour hearing on Feb. 13, all parties to the case were represented as well as those of us seeking the records. The judge issued her decision on the afternoon of Feb. 19 — in our favor — and the Tulsa World immediately wrote a story based on the records, posted it on tulsaworld.com and printed it in the next day’s newspaper.
My purpose in writing this column is not to talk about this very public case, but rather to answer the questions of why the Tulsa World — at a time when budgets in the news business are extremely tight — would spend good money on a legal fight over the openness of public records.
Our interest wasn’t salacious. As I stated previously, this was a controversial case. We, and other local media, exhaustively reported on it.
In the end, the public deserved to know the outcome. And, more importantly, the public had the legal right to know the outcome.
And it’s important to preserve that right.
Mark Thomas is the executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association. The association represents 175 newspapers throughout the state. The newspapers vary widely in size — they are dailies, weeklies and semi-weeklies.
One of the tasks that Thomas does so well for Oklahoma newspapers is to serve as the guardian of the Open Records Act at the Oklahoma Legislature. Every year since 1985, well-meaning, or perhaps not-so-well-meaning, legislators have sought to amend the Act to exclude or limit various records.
“Transparency has become a very popular topic,” Thomas told me last week. “Everyone wants transparency, until they come across something they think may be too transparent.”
Each year as the Legislature goes into session, Thomas is tasked with the job of reviewing each bill filed and assessing whether or not it takes away access to public records. He talks to publishers and editors who serve on his board and informs members about how changes might affect access to records that are important in reporting. And he meets with legislators to let them know how those records are used, the importance of their availability. Many, many times the threat to access is turned back.
But every journalist knows that the Open Records Act is not as strong as it was when it was first passed. What is more difficult for the public to understand, however, is that when journalists lose access so do you as a private citizen.
Thomas agrees. “The attempt to limit public records isn’t an anti-media move. No one is saying, ‘We have to keep the media from seeing this record.’ When a record is excluded from the Open Records Act, it is removed for everyone.”
The biggest threat to access he sees now is that more and more records have become available online. “A lot of the records that I see being challenged at the Legislature are online records,” Thomas said. “We have developed all of these online systems for court records, land records, assessors’ records. And all of these have great benefits for all types of people.”
He points out that those are accessed by landlords, human resources professionals, Realtors — anyone who has a business or personal interest in finding information.
“But then someone starts worrying that there’s a little too much access there. Anyone can access it — even in a foreign country. People in China, Russia, countries that don’t have our best interest at heart. Even Texas,” he laughed.
“Records were much more secure when you had to go down to the county courthouse, check in and go talk to someone about what record you wanted and look someone in the eye,” he said. “Often, journalists were the only ones regularly taking the time to go do that. If you had criminal intent, you might have an aversion to going down to the courthouse and asking for a record. Now ‘they’ can get in our court records online and look around … some think that’s too open.”
He understands the concerns, but argues against the attempts to further limit access to records that serve the public’s interest.
Thomas is passionate about Open Records. And thank goodness he is.
He even cites the Declaration of Independence when talking to legislators and others about why the openness of records is vital to our democracy.
“It’s right there in one of our most important historical documents,” he says. “When our forefathers were setting out their grievances against King George, they specifically mentioned the fact he had called them to places ‘distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.’ ”
Among many concerns, our founding fathers were concerned about their lack of access to public records.
For me, the purpose of good journalism is to inform. In the process of doing that, journalists serve as the public’s watchdog in such important matters as how government spends our money, or how courts operate and dispense justice.
Preserving the public’s right to records that are needed to inform is imperative.
And that’s why it’s necessary every once in a while to spend money on a good lawyer.