DENVER—Interior Sec- retary Sally Jewell didn’t violate Colorado’s Sunshine Law when she excluded reporters from a public meeting Tuesday in Craig, but she may have a problem with the First Amendment.
That’s the initial analysis from Steve Zansberg, legal counsel for the Colorado Press Association and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
“There’s an argument to be made that it’s one thing to exclude the public from the meeting, but you can’t exclude some members of the public, and the press has no greater rights and no lesser rights than any other member of the public,” said Zansberg. “To single out the press and exclude them from a meeting that the government had opened to the public is arguably a violation of the First Amendment.”
Jewell’s much-anticipated visit to Moffat County ended on a sour note when her staff refused to allow Craig Daily Press reporter Erin Fenner to attend a meeting on sage-grouse conservation with federal, state and local officials.
The Craig Daily Press reported that some members of the public were allowed to attend the meeting.
“What’s concerning about the situation is that members of the public were allowed in the sage grouse meeting but not the media,” said the newspaper in a Jan. 24 editorial. “We’d like to remind the secretary that members of the press are also members of the public.”
Because Jewell is a federal official, Zansberg said she didn’t break Colorado’s Open Meetings Law, which requires meetings to be made public when three or more local officials from the same board or commission are present.
“The Secretary of Interior didn’t violate our open-meetings laws because she is not subject to them,” said Zansberg. “Nor is our governor.”
But she did place the Moffat County Commissioners in an awkward position. In attendance were all three commissioners, who had announced earlier that the press would be welcome at the gathering.
“Moffat County gave appropriate notice that it was scheduled and open to the public,” said a Jan. 23 editorial in the Grand Junction Sentinel. “Jewell has no authority to overrule them and declare a meeting closed that legally must be open.”
Moffat County Commissioners did try to include Fenner at the meeting—one of them walked her back after she had been rebuffed, only to have her blocked again. Even so, it appears the commission may have violated the state’s Open Meetings Law, in practice if not in spirit.
Still unclear is whether Jewell intended the meeting to be open to the general public but not the press. Interior spokesman Blake Androff described the gathering in an email afterward as a “stakeholder meeting.”
Androff said the press had extensive access during the tour of the Bord Gulch Ranch, where Jewell and Gov. John Hickenlooper were shown how ranchers are working to protect sage-grouse habitat.
“The meeting was closed to press to allow for an open and frank conversation but there were many opportunities for reporters to cover the visit,” said Androff in an email.
“We spent more than 60 minutes engaging with 5 reporters at the ranch and also made the Secretary available to reporters after the meeting,” said Androff. “The stakeholder meeting was scheduled to last 60 minutes but the Secretary personally chose to stay an additional 30 minutes to make sure energy voice was heard.”
Noelle Leavitt Riley, managing editor of the Craig Daily Press, said Jewell’s desire for an “open and frank conversation” shouldn’t have overridden the right of the press to attend the meeting.
“I responded back to the Department of Interior, ‘Look, I appreciate your response, but if American public officials are allowed to close meetings because they want to have frank discussions, then what does that say about our democracy?’” said Riley.
“The sage-grouse issue is huge. We were excited she was coming,” said Riley. “Her visit was marred by her not putting any forethought into the repercussions of her closing a public meeting to the press. And she put county officials in a bad position.”
Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown told the Craig Daily Press the governor “went into the meeting with every expectation that it was open to reporters,” and was unaware that the press had been excluded until the following day.
“In other words, everyone wanted the media there except Jewell,” said the Craig Daily Press editorial. “Perhaps it’s time for the Secretary of Interior to rethink her approach to how she deals with members of the press.”