Boucher headlines VCOG conference
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government held its annual conference May 22-23 in Fredericksburg.
The conference kicked off with a dinner May 22 honoring the recipients of this year’s FOI award winners: Leigh Purdum and Laurence Hammack (see story, page 9). The keynote speaker was Sen. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), the chair of the FOI Advisory Council, as well as the Senate General Laws Subcommittee on FOIA. Houck remarked how he knew little about FOIA when he first took office in 1973. He credited a later phone call from now-editor of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star Ed Jones, also the VCOG board secretary, encouraging him to embrace concepts of open government and transparency, and to learn all he could about the Freedom of Information Act.
Over the years, Houck has sponsored many bills aimed at strengthening FOIA’s procedures and protections for citizen rights of access.
Following a brief business meeting of VCOG’s membership on Friday, May 23, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-9th District) described his work on behalf of the Free Flow of Information Act, the so-called reporter’s shield law, now winding its way through Congress.
He cited the scandals surrounding Abu Ghraib prison and unwarranted wiretapping as the types of stories that might not come to light if reporters cannot guarantee their sources anonymity.
"Bringing that kind of information to light is how we take corrective action," he said.
Boucher added that the issue of who is a journalist entitled to claim the shield privilege has been largely settled. Bloggers will not be considered journalists unless they receive substantial financial compensation.
Following Boucher’s speech, two panels met simultaneously. One, led by Christian & Barton lawyer Craig Merritt, took audience members on a wild ride of tips and pointers for gathering information online. Private investigator Nicole Bocra stunned some with some of her secrets of the trade, while reporters Cheryl Chumley of the Potomac News and Pam Gould of the Free Lance-Star both shared some of their more effective record-gathering techniques.
Across the hall, Dick Hammerstrom, an editor at the Free Lance-Star, led a discussion about filing a FOIA lawsuit in Virginia. His panel members included Joe Smith, VCOG’s pro bono counsel and legal counsel on several FOIA lawsuits; Maria Everett, executive director of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council; VCOG board member and FOIA-litigation veteran Lee Albright; and Leigh Purdum, a citizen activist whose lawsuit in a Madison general district court produced the first known finding of wilful misconduct under the records act.
After lunch, Ed Jones moderated a panel further dissecting the reporter’s shield law. Featured panelist Toni Locy detailed the story she wrote about Steven Hatfill, a so-called "person of interest" in the FBI’s anthrax investigations following 9/11, several years after the poison attacks. Hatfill subpoenaed the former USAToday reporter and current journalism professor at Washington & Lee University to disclose her sources for the story. When she refused, a federal district court held Locy in contempt, fining her $5,000 per day. To add insult to injury, the judge also told Locy that neither her employer, her friends or family could pay the fines for her. Locy’s case is currently pending before a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.
Locy was joined on the panel by Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a VCOG board member, who highlighted the alarming trend toward more and more reporter subpoenas. Virginia Tech journalism professor and VCOG board president Wat Hopkins schooled the audience on the legal, judicial and constitutional bases of the privilege. He noted how the U.S. Supreme Court case on the issue had no clear-cut majority opinion.
-- Megan Rhyne
Making Your FOIA Life Easier
A seminar for state and local records managers at the Library of Virginia
800 E. Broad St., Richmond
Thursday, May 30, 2013
9:00 - 12:00
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