Court settlement grants Florida paper access to COVID-19 reports

scales of justiceThe state of Florida last week settled a lawsuit with the Orlando Sentinel, agreeing to provide weekly COVID-19 reports within two days and pay the newspaper’s legal costs.

It was a victory for the newspaper, and for press freedom. Our experience contains lessons – and encouragement – for other newsrooms facing obstruction by state or local officials.

Before filing suit, we persistently sought the documents for weeks, through informal and formal channels. We repeatedly told our readers about our efforts and the state’s decision to withhold information, keeping the issue alive in the public’s eye.

Newspapers in tough times may be reluctant to spend money on lawsuits. But the Sentinel got all of its money back.

At issue was the weekly report that the White House Coronavirus Task Force has been producing since late June. The Task Force doesn’t make the reports public or easy to obtain. Local and national news outlets have had to file FOIAs to get them. The Center for Public Integrity has been compiling them on DocumentCloud.

The reports are usually 14 pages long and contain no private health data. Because they’re issued weekly, it’s important to obtain them in a timely manner. The documents’ most critical aspect is their list of recommendations to state officials, such as increasing testing and public messaging about masks and social distancing.

When I learned about the reports in October, I wrote to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office:

“I’d like to request the latest weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force report for Florida. If you’re not going to share the report today or if you require me to file a FOIA for it, please state your reason so I can pass it on to our attorney,” I wrote.

DeSantis’ office was quick to turn my inquiry into a public records request and after I pressed them throughout the day, they said, “all public records are required to go through our office of General Counsel for legal review prior to release to ensure any exempt information and other protected information are withheld in compliance with Florida law.”

I reminded them that nothing in the reports is private health data and some states have been posting them online. I still didn’t get the report I had requested.

The exchange happened on Friday. On Monday, still without a report or an expected date to receive the report, I asked my editor if I could get our attorneys at Shullman Fugate involved. She said yes and within the hour, the attorneys had reached out to the governor’s office. After five workdays from my first request, the state provided us with a task force report that was two weeks old.

From that point on, we wrote about every task force report we obtained and how we obtained them. We told the readers about our struggle to get the reports from the state and we covered the progress of the lawsuit.

The reports are released on Sundays, so I continued to request them every Monday and again, with our attorneys’ involvement, the state gave us a few more reports, until they stopped in November, even when our attorneys pushed for their release.

We managed to get one of the reports from another state agency and two reports were shared with us by a third party. And Liz Whyte of CPI alerted local reporters on Twitter when she got a batch of reports for the 50 states.

By early December, when we had pending requests for five weekly reports from November, our attorneys said that the delays had become unreasonable and that we should sue. My editors were quick to agree and the lawsuit was filed by the Orlando Sentinel on  Dec. 11.

After a month and one hearing, the state settled the lawsuit on Jan. 6, agreeing to provide the reports within two business days and pay $7,500 in attorney fees.

While the lawsuit was in progress, the state began to slowly release the reports that we had requested. The day after the lawsuit was settled, it released four more reports, including the most recent one for January. That report showed the deterioration of COVID-19 numbers in Florida that state officials barely acknowledged, instead touting the limited supply of the vaccines.

We’re going to continue requesting the reports every week as long as they’re issued and I encourage local reporters to ask for them too.

Send your request to the governor’s office, the state health department and the state’s office of emergency management. Keep your editors in the loop and get your attorneys involved if you don’t get a response within a few days. These reports contain no data that require redaction or legal review.

Whyte of CPI reported in mid-December that the reports are no longer automatically sent to the states and the states have to request them. If that’s the case for your state, there’s a new daily report issued by the task force, called COVID-19 Community Profile, which provides a wealth of information about the state of the pandemic in your state. I highly recommend reading through Whyte’s Twitter thread about the daily reports.

Send your requests and keep at them. And don’t be timid about making your efforts part of the story. It is news when public officials hide crucial public health information.

If your newsroom doesn’t have legal counsel, here are some options:

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