LION members suing local sheriff, alleging retaliation, withheld records

The publishers of Lake County News in California are suing their local sheriff, alleging he restricted access to public information

January 10, 2013 by Dylan Smith


The publishers of Lake County News in California are suing their local sheriff, alleging he restricted access to public information in retaliation for reports that he is under investigation for allegedly lying about a shooting in which he was involved.

LION Publishers members John Jensen and Elizabeth Larson said Lake County Sheriff Frank Rivero stopped providing information, including routine press releases, to Lake County News after a series of articles on the investigation into a 2008 shooting.

Jensen and Larson said they couldn't provide details beyond the contents of a news release, and asked that questions be addressed to their attorney, Paul Nicholas Boylan.

Here's the news release:

A small Internet–based media outlet is suing a County Sheriff for discrimination. In a lawsuit filed in Lake County Superior Court, John Jensen and Elizabeth Larson – doing business as the Lake County News (LCN) located online at – allege that Lake County Sheriff Frank Rivero is retaliating against them and their media outlet because Rivero is angry about LCN's coverage of issues critical of Rivero.

That coverage includes a series of articles in which LCN uncovered that Rivero is under investigation by Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson for allegedly lying about a 2008 shooting in which he was involved while working as a deputy.

"The Lake County Sheriff's Office has a media distribution list that identifies the email addresses for all media outlets that have asked to receive copies of press releases issued by the Sheriff's office. LCN was removed from this list after publishing articles critical of Sheriff Rivero. That means our competitors receive press releases with important public safety information, but LCN does not. And that means that LCN cannot inform its readers of this important information," Larson said.

LCN's lawsuit also alleges that the Sheriff's Office discriminates against LCN by failing to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

"The CPRA allows journalists and private citizens to gain access to information and documents held by governmental agencies," said Paul Nicholas Boylan, a Davis-based attorney specializing in open government issues who is representing Jensen and Larson.

"Investigative journalists in California rely on CPRA to look into how government operates and to determine whether or not public officials and employees are behaving in a lawful manner. That's what happened in the City of Bell case from a few years ago. A local journalist used the CPRA to prove widespread corruption. That would not have been possible without the CPRA," Boylan said.

"This isn't just about us, just about one small Internet media outlet that covers news in a small county in northern California," Larson said. "This is about something bigger. It is about the freedom of the press and the right of people to be free from government retaliation. It isn't right for elected officials to punish media outlets and the people associated with those media outlets when they report on issues and publish statements that the elected officials don't like. There are rules to prevent that from happening, and my husband and I have decided to take the steps necessary to make sure it doesn't happen to us and doesn't happen to anybody else."

Jensen and Larson are considering additional legal actions. "Elizabeth and I have been advised that we have potential actions for damages against the Sheriff and those working with him to violate our constitutional rights," Jensen said.

"We're waiting to see how all of this works out before we decide what to do next," Larson concluded. Boylan said that negotiations are beginning and that he is hopeful that this dispute can be resolved quickly.

"The law is very clear: public officials cannot pick and choose which media outlets they communicate with based on the content of what is being reported. There is no question in my mind that my clients are going to prevail if Sheriff Rivero refuses to treat them fairly and equally and continues to violate the public's right to access governmental information and records. The only rational decision, the only option the Sheriff has, is to return my clients to the Sheriff Office's media distribution list and to provide my clients with access to the public documents and information they have requested," Boylan said.

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