Update below: Interior department responds.
Lawyers for the Colorado Press Association say that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell violated a reporter’s First Amendment rights when her staff prevented the reporter from attending a public meeting last week.
They also say Jewell’s desire to keep the press out of a meeting about sage grouse conservation with elected Colorado officials caused the Moffat County Commissioners to violate the state’s open meetings law. Gov. John Hickenlooper was also in attendance.
The commissioners had posted a formal notice of the public meeting and personally invited reporter Erin Fenner from the Craig Daily News to attend. But a person Fenner believes to be one of Jewell’s staffers turned her away twice when she tried to enter the meeting.
“As a result of Ms. Fenner’s being barred from attending the public meeting at the American Legion Hall, we have reason to believe that your office caused the Moffat County Commissioners to be in violation of the Open Meetings Law,” attorney Steve Zansberg wrote in a letter to Jewell on Monday.
Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid told Steamboat Today that he was caught off-guard when Fenner was prevented from attending the meeting.
“I’ve not been around a situation like this before,” he said. “I was caught off-guard, and I thought about going to the door and physically escorting [Fenner] through, but I didn’t want to crank off the Secretary of Interior and blow the meeting, because the stakes of the economy were so high. I was conflicted about what to do.”
Jewell’s staff later emailed another reporter at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel saying that no members of the public was turned away. Zansberg wrote that, under law, members of the press are members of the public, so the email “is factually incorrect.”
“[B]y excluding Ms. Fenner from that meeting, on the sole basis that she was a reporter, her rights, and the rights of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment, were violated,” he wrote.
“We attribute the unfortunate set of events to a basic breakdown in communication between the Moffat County Commissioners and your office regarding the parameters of the meeting,” he concluded. “Accordingly, we respectfully urge you, in the future, to strive to communicate in advance with local public bodies who are subject to our state’s Open Meetings Laws prior to excluding any members of the public (including the press) from meetings at which public business is discussed, and to which the general public has been formally invited.”
Update: The Interior Department responded to the CPA’s letter with an email Tuesday night.
“The Department of the Interior strives to maintain an open and transparent relationship with the press and the public, and we sincerely regret the incident and any role we had in the miscommunication,” the letter from Director of Communications Kate Kelly said. “As you suggest, we are redoubling our efforts to coordinate with local government offices to ensure transparency and respect for important press freedoms.”
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