A Louisiana state judge has upheld the authority of the chief executive of the city and parish of Lafayette to begin charging $1 per page for digital copies of public records, even though the fees apply only to three media outlets.
Two of the Lafayette outlets, The Acadiana Advocate, a daily that is the local edition of the Baton Rouge-based The Advocate/The Times-Picayune, and The Current, an online non-profit, sued Mayor-President Josh Guillory on Sept. 19 after Guillory abruptly began charging $1 a page for digital copies that had previously been free. The state’s public records act states a “reasonable fee” may be charged for printed copies. An amendment went into effect Aug. 1 that extends the “reasonable” standard to digital copies as well. Guillory began charging the fees without approval from the city and parish councils or without any public notice.
Not coincidentally, Guillory had been under scrutiny the past few months not only by the media but by the city and parish councils over possible conflicts of interest, such as augmenting his salary as mayor-president by adjunct teaching and earning outside money from his law practice; and over questionable no-bid contracts he approved for drainage projects.
The lawsuit notes that Louisiana public bodies typically charge 25 cents per page or $15 to $25 per response.
“Instead of hiding records or destroying them, Guillory has decided to make it as difficult as possible for the public to view and copy records so as to ensure there is no questioning of his administration,” the lawsuit states.
But on Oct. 5, state District Judge Marilyn Castle ruled against the media after a four-hour hearing, saying Guillory has the authority to assess such fees without council approval.
Asked for his reaction to the ruling, Current editor Christiaan Mader, an SPJ member, told Quill, “We still haven’t had our day in court on the heart of the issue: the digital paywall. And every day that it stands is a problem, however temporary. Guillory has explicitly targeted the press with the charges, but everyone suffers without transparency. The silver lining is, a fix is not entirely up to the mayor-president or the courts. Lafayette’s councils have the power to overrule Guillory and set a sensible public records policy. The public deserves it and good government demands it.”
A court hearing on whether the fees are “reasonable” is tentatively scheduled for December.
The issue arose over the summer after The Current’s Leslie Turk wrote two in-depth exposés about the no-bid contracts and about Guillory earning money from his law practice during the period he supposedly checked himself into a rehab facility for alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in Iraq. Both her articles were also run on the front page of The Advocate.
For two separate public records requests, The Current was told it would have to pay $70 and $876 for the documents. Instead, Mader viewed the documents in the office of an attorney under contract to Lafayette Consolidated Government. But a reporter for The Advocate, Megan Wyatt, was told she would have to pay the fee even is she viewed them in the office, a violation of the public records act.
Besides The Advocate and The Current, Andrew Capps, who covers the local governments for Gannett’s The Daily Advertiser, also ran into the new paywall. In an article on Sept. 30, Capps reported that there had been 131 public records requests since the amended law took effect Aug. 1 but that only The Daily Advertiser, The Advocate and The Current were charged for copies; other requests were met free of charge.
For his part, Guillory has unabashedly gone on record that his move is retribution against the media.
“Let me tell you, I wish it was $100 a page because some of these media — I’m serious, I wish every media outlet had to pay $100 a page,” he said on his weekly radio program on KPEL “You put me on the record with that. All these media outlets, they pry and they pry,” he added, “They take our [departmental] directors away from people to pry and pry and make up things.”
Besides the media, Guillory has had a stormy relationship with the city and parish governing bodies. Lafayette has a peculiar consolidated government system, with separate councils for Lafayette Parish (county) and the City of Lafayette. The mayor-president, elected by the voters, is chief executive over both.
Claire Taylor, The Advocate’s veteran city hall and parish courthouse reporter, explained in an email what she encountered.
“I wanted a digital copy of the 3,300+ documents responsive to 18 questions the City Council asked the administration to answer about drainage projects, bids, no-bid additions to contracts, etc.,” she related. “The City Council chairwoman, Nanette Cook, asked the administration for answers in July but Guillory said his staff at the time was too busy with budget preparations and suggested the council hire an auditor. So they did! The council voted unanimously to authorize an investigation and hire a forensic auditor and possibly an attorney to conduct an investigation.
“The day the council was set to vote to allocate $100,000 to pay for the audit, Guillory magically produced answers to the questions (3,300+ pages printed out in 10 binders given to the council, with much of it also on an internal drive council members have access to), saying there was no need to waste $100,000 of taxpayer money,” she continued. “The council voted unanimously to spend up to $100,000 on the investigation/audit. To get copies of those documents digitally would have cost $3,300+ even though it would take about seven minutes to transfer it from the internal drive to a flash drive. I went around the administration and the City Council staff gave me the documents (unredacted by the legal team) on a flash drive for free. I timed it. It took six to seven minutes to transfer and I provided the thumb drive.”
Turk has since written a third article, also carried by The Advocate, reporting that Guillory was dismissed as an adjunct business law professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2013 for allegedly badgering students who complained about him; that UL rehired him in 2020 after he was elected mayor-president; that he has made $15,800 from teaching the class during the day in apparent violation of the city-parish charter provision against outside employment during normal business hours; and that his teaching raises a question of conflict of interest because UL and Lafayette Consolidated Government often conduct business together, such as property exchanges.
James Hashek, a New Orleans attorney who has taught media law courses at both Loyola and Tulane universities, told Quill, “Louisiana public records laws require that charges for providing copies of public records to anyone requesting them be reasonably related to the cost of making the copies, and the law requires that copies be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge to persons planning to use the copies for a public purpose. There was a time when reporting on the functioning of government and its spending of tax dollars was considered ‘a public purpose.’
“Any public official who wishes out loud that he could charge $100 per page for providing the news media a public record must think otherwise,” he added.
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is a retired journalism professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and vice president of the Louisiana Pro Chapter of SPJ. He has covered the Louisiana Legislature for The Current.