The California Newspapers Publishers Association announced this week that a small Internet — based media outlet is suing Lake County Sheriff Frank Rivero for discrimination.
In a lawsuit filed in Lake County Superior Court, John Jensen and Elizabeth Larson — doing business as the Lake County News (LCN) located online at www.lakeconews.com — allege that Rivero is retaliating against them and their media outlet because he is angry about LCN’s coverage of issues critical of him.
That reporting includes a series of articles in which the journalists uncovered that Rivero was under investigation by Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson for allegedly lying about a 2008 shooting in which he was involved while working as a deputy.
“The Lake County Sheriff's Office has a media distribution list that identifies the email addresses for all media outlets that have asked to receive copies of press releases issued by the Sheriff's office. LCN was removed from this list after publishing articles critical of Sheriff Rivero.
“That means our competitors receive press releases with important public safety information, but LCN does not. And that means that LCN cannot inform its readers of this important information,” Larson said.
LCN's lawsuit also alleges that the Sheriff’s Office discriminates against them by failing to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA).
“The CPRA allows journalists and private citizens to gain access to information and documents held by governmental agencies,” said Paul Nicholas Boylan, a Davis-based attorney specializing in open government issues who is representing Jensen and Larson.
“Investigative journalists in California rely on CPRA to look into how government operates and to determine whether or not public officials and employees are behaving in a lawful manner. That's what happened in the City of Bell case from a few years ago. A local journalist used the CPRA to prove widespread corruption. That would not have been possible without the CPRA,” Boylan said.
“This isn't just about us, just about one small Internet media outlet that covers news in a small county in northern California,” Larson said. “This is about something bigger. It is about the freedom of the press and the right of people to be free from government retaliation.
“It isn't right for elected officials to punish media outlets and the people associated with those media outlets when they report on issues and publish statements that the elected officials don't like. There are rules to prevent that from happening, and my husband and I have decided to take the steps necessary to make sure it doesn't happen to us and doesn't happen to anybody else.”
Jensen and Larson say they are considering additional legal actions. “Elizabeth and I have been advised that we have potential actions for damages against the Sheriff and those working with him to violate our constitutional rights,” Jensen said.
“We're waiting to see how all of this works out before we decide what to do next,” Larson concluded.
Boylan said that negotiations are beginning and that he is hopeful that the dispute can be resolved quickly.
“The law is very clear: public officials cannot pick and choose which media outlets they communicate with based on the content of what is being reported. There is no question in my mind that my clients are going to prevail if Sheriff Rivero refuses to treat them fairly and equally and continues to violate the public's right to access governmental information and records.
“The only rational decision, the only option the Sheriff has, is to return my clients to the Sheriff Office’s media distribution list and to provide my clients with access to the public documents and information they have requested,” Boylan said.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told the ICO Tuesday that Rivero’s predecessor, four-term sheriff Rod Mitchell, impressed upon him the importance of being transparent and fair with the media and hence, the public.
“When I first took office, Rod told me that 95% of what we do should be out in the open,” Allman said. “There is only about 5% that we need to keep under wraps, such as ongoing investigations. That’s why we post our daily Media Logs, Booking Logs and press releases on our website for both the media and the public.”
Familiar with the Lake County lawsuit, the Sheriff said he would not penalize a media outlet that criticized him or his department.
Unlike Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas and his staff, Allman and his officers are almost always available to the ICO by phone. He makes it a practice to conduct regular town meetings in the far-flung communities his department covers where he encourages people to offer “constructive criticism” of the Sheriff’s Office. He also frequently appears on local radio call-in shows, which he said are a good place to “dispel rumors that have no basis in fact."
Courtesy, the Independent Coast Observer.