A&A: Newspaper Facing Possible Retaliation Over Reporting On Local Scandal Involving City Hall

Q: We are a small news organization covering a scandal and cover-up regarding finances and fraudulent email involving the city. There exists a pattern and culture of City Hall utilizing punitive powers to bully and pressure residents and business owners in town. Due to the recordings that we are publishing in our local paper, certain members of City Hall and the City Council have been intimidating some residents and businesses. They are afraid to make public comments or step forward for fear of retaliation from the city. Our small news organization is now fearful about retaliation for reporting the news on this activity. What is our legal position?

A: “The First Amendment protects newspapers from retaliation by government agencies on account of articles or views that the newspapers have published (or intend to publish),” Alameda Newspapers, Inc. v. City of Oakland, 95 F.3d 1406, 1421 (9th Cir. 1996), but probably does not allow a newspaper to sue over a city’s pressuring residents in the city not to talk with you.  It may, however, protect your newspaper from the city pressuring citizens not to buy your newspaper, or place advertising in it, due to your reporting, as that would be a form of retaliation.

If the retaliation against the newspaper has not happened yet, and you are only “fearful” of it, you may not be able to sue until you can show a concrete threat that the retaliation is about to occur, in which case you may be able to file a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the threatened retaliation. 

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries.  In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.

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