Officials can't handcuff public records laws

March 24, 2016 12:00

A year ago, the mayor of White Castle, Louisiana, Jermarr Williams, was earning $20.31 an hour to serve in his elected post. By November of 2015, check registers showed he was earning $24.44 an hour. But no one could find a record of when or if the city council voted to increase his salary. A group of city residents, unable to get answers, sued. Last week, a judge ordered the town to produce the relevant public records.

WBRZ-TV the ABC affiliate in nearby Baton Rouge filed a freedom of information request to see those records. But when reporter Chris Nakamoto went to city hall on Wednesday to check on the status of that request, he was put in handcuffs, removed from city hall and charged with a misdemeanor. The station captured the incident on video and posted it on its website.

Louisiana law clearly states that any member of the public can examine any public record, unless otherwise exempted by law, and that it is the duty of public officials to provide those records. The right to examine public records is even included in the state's constitution.

“The arrest of WBRZ investigative reporter Chris Nakamoto for “trespass” in a public building while attempting to access a public record is a blatant assault on First Amendment rights,“ said RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender. “ Especially in light of a judge’s order that these records be made public, this kind of action is wholly unacceptable on the part of the local police and city administration and cannot be justified or tolerated.”

WBRZ news director Lee Polowczuk says the station stands by its reporter and is considering legal options.