Vermont journalists on Thursday lost their fight to have government pay their legal fees whenever they successfully sue an official for withholding a public record, reports the Rutland Herald. The Senate Judiciary Committee, however, agreed to change the law to mandate that judges award legal fees whenever public officials are found to have “knowingly and unreasonably” withheld access to public documents.
Present law gives judges discretion to grant legal fees when plaintiffs win their case, but only two such awards are known to have occurred during the last 30 years. Journalists who pushed for mandatory financial awards whenever they successfully sue do not believe the proposed change will improve the situation. “Anybody can put up an argument that a good-faith effort was made,” said the executive director of the Vermont Press Association. Journalists told the committee that the high cost of paying lawyers – court challenges can cost more than $10,000 – has a chilling affect on the willingness of the press to fight important First Amendment battles.