How to navigate Ky. Open Records and Open Meetings Laws

Government activities should be open to the public. It’s a fundamental American right. But it isn’t always honored by public officials. You can fight for your right to information – and Society of Professional Journalists, Louisville Pro Chapter, is ready to show you how.

Learn more about open records and meetings at a free program presented by Society of Professional Journalists, Louisville Pro chapter, on Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. at Bon Air branch of Louisville Free Public Library, 2816 Del Rio Place, Louisville.

Amye Bensenhaver, recently retired from the Kentucky Attorney General’s office, will describe the mechanics of the law, the challenges requesters currently face in negotiating the law, and challenges on the horizon. Amye will review what types of records and meetings are open to the public, and the type of obstacles you might encounter in getting public information.

Amye will speak about problems members of the media may face, but also about how everyday public citizens can find and get information that they need to serve as watchdogs over government entities. She will take questions from the audience.

The event is free and open to the public. It sponsored by SPJ, Louisville Pro Chapter.

If you have questions about the event, e-mail Robyn Davis Sekula at or call (502) 608-6125.

Kentucky forum on accountability journalism to be rescheduled

A forum on questions raised by The Kentucky Kernel’s reporting on the University of Kentucky’s handling of a sexual-assault case against a professor was canceled Thursday, Oct. 13 because of a scheduling conflict.

SPJ Bluegrass Professional Chapter President Liz Hansen says the event will be rescheduled. We’ll share an update when information becomes available.

Kentucky SPJ groups to hold forum on privacy, transparency and accountability journalism

The Kentucky Kernel’s reporting on the University of Kentucky’s handling of a sexual-assault case against a professor has raised important questions about privacy for victims, transparency of a public university, and the role of accountability journalism in a democratic society.

These issues will be explored in a public forum at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, in the auditorium of the W.T. Young Library at UK.

The panelists will be Kernel Editor Marjorie Kirk, a UK journalism student; Thomas Miller, the newspaper’s lawyer; Jay Blanton, chief spokesman for the university and a former Kernel editor; and Ashley Rouster, coordinator and survivor advocate from the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center at UK. The moderator will be John Nelson, retired executive editor of the former Danville-based Advocate Communications.

The program is sponsored by the UK Campus Chapter and the Bluegrass Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. It is free and open to the public, and a question-and-answer session will follow the panel discussion.

SPJ, founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, visit

Bluegrass Pro SPJ issues statement on resignation of open government expert from AG office

Bluegrass (Kentucky) Professional Chapter SPJ issued a statement Tuesday in response to the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, the AG office’s lead attorney with 25 years of experience in Open Meetings and Open Records appeals. Bensenhaver resigned after being reprimanded for speaking with a reporter without permission.

See the full statement below and links to articles about the resignation including an editorial by Bluegrass Pro Vice President John A. Nelson.

Sept. 6, 2016

To whom it may concern:

Transparency is the lifeblood of a democracy. As our Code of Ethics declares, “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.”

That conviction prompts the SPJ Bluegrass Chapter to express deep concern over the resignation “under considerable duress” of Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver. How Attorney General Andy Beshear intends to replace her and allocate her workload is also a concern for proponents of transparency.

During her 25-year tenure, Bensenhaver has been recognized by open-government advocates as a leading authority on the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings Acts. She has used that expertise to train public officials and the legal community.

One premise for what she considered a severe reprimand from a Beshear-appointed supervisor was an interview with a retired editor for an article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the state’s sunshine laws. While it may be office policy to control journalists by funneling their questions through a spokesperson, this practice is a barrier to transparency and an offense to taxpayers.

Bensenhaver’s post-resignation comments raise concerns about the increasing political tenor of the Office of the Attorney General. She says the writing of open-government appeals will be supervised by a non-merit employee, whom the AG can fire without cause. Assigning non-merit employees to handle sensitive open-government opinions is an affront to the intent of these laws and to those who depend on the office as a fortress against officials who believe the public is not entitled to know what their government is doing. The opinions become precedents that governments at all levels must follow unless they are appealed to a circuit court and overturned.

While Kentucky’s sunshine laws are among the best in the country, they come with an inherent imbalance. Public officials can spend taxpayer dollars to defend their positions in court and hire high-priced attorneys, while residents who challenge government secrecy must use their own money or raise it. That imbalance increases the importance of the attorney general’s office, where denials for records can be appealed without an attorney. Well-written opinions by staff attorneys who are not political appointees have provided clear guidance and often resolved issues without being appealed.

We encourage Beshear to replace Bensenhaver with someone who will not be part of the political process, and to not politicize oversight of this important function. We also urge him to end the gag rule on his staff. It is a bizarre contradiction that the very people writing decisions about laws intended to make government transparent are gagged from explaining those decisions or providing insight into the way the laws have been used and how they have worked.

We also recommend the attorney general review the process for issuing these decisions. Bensenhaver was chastised for refusing to sign opinions she wrote that were amended by supervisors. We find it inconceivable that a 25-year expert on these laws – or any attorney, for that matter – would be expected to sign as her own a decision contrary to her interpretation.

Intimidating staff to accept the “approved interpretation” of politically appointed supervisors raises serious questions about whether this attorney general’s priority will be protection of government transparency or furtherance of his political agenda.

In short, Amye Bensenhaver’s resignation under duress is regrettable and a blow to the cause of open government in Kentucky. If Beshear intends to rebuild the public’s confidence in his office, he should insulate staff attorneys who write these opinions from political pressure.

As Louisville’s Louis Brandeis wrote in 1913 before his appointment to the Supreme Court, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” We believe Beshear and his political staff should endorse that maxim in principle and in practice.

The article referenced in reprimand reprimand:
Celebrating 40 years of the Kentucky Open Records Act

Article reporting reprimand and retirement:

Response editorial column by John Nelson:
Retirement leaves AG office less equipped to deal with open meetings, open records



FOIAFest became bigger and even better this year!

About 150 people attended the fourth annual FOIAfest March 12 at Loyola University Chicago. Loyola, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Chicago Headline Club were the sponsors. Below is a smattering of comments provided by Chicago Headline Club member Susan Stevens from the dozen break-out sessions.

Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, gave the keynote address.

Among Shaw’s observations: FOIAs are not just for journalists but also for citizens who are keeping watch. Government is a service – not a business. The real problem with FOIA lawsuits is public officials fight us with our – taxpayer – own money. Biggest challenge to democracy is a disengaged citizenry.

Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, delivers FOIAFest keynote address.

Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, delivers FOIAFest keynote address.

Freelancer Brandon Smith: Government units should fund FOIA offices, hold them to the law. He won the release of the Lacquan MacDonald video that showed the teen shot 16 times while jogging AWAY from police. (He will speak April 2 at the Society of Professional Journalists’ Region 4/5 Spring Conference in Cincinnati.)

Invisible Institute’s Jamie Kalven: There’s a huge shadow population of people abused by police who don’t complain.

Matt Topic, Jamie Kalven, Brandon Smith and Mick Dumke discuss how independent journalists and attorneys uncovered alleged Chicago police misconduct through FOIA. 

Matt Topic, Jamie Kalven, Brandon Smith and Mick Dumke discuss how independent journalists and attorneys uncovered alleged Chicago police misconduct through FOIA.

Kalven: Just make this stuff public without FOIA requests.

Attorney Matt Topic: When do you decide to sue? When you know “diligently is a lie.” Governments don’t have a lot of incentive to obey FOIA. Go to the Illinois Attorney General immediately after a deadline is missed.

Sun Times’ Mick Dumke moderated that session.

Sun-Times’ Frank Main: When you ask cops for something you are really dealing with the city Law Department or the mayor’s office.

Tribune’s David Heinzmann: It’s easier to go to sources for documents rather than FOIAing. Find some way to meet cops in another environment, build friendships and therefore sources.

Heinzmann: You often get in response to a FOIA, “Your request was overly burdensome.” That’s the latest police response. “They don’t know their own laws.” Example: City says a maximum of 1,000 emails can be FOIAed; police say 500.

Chip Mitchell, David Heinzmann and Frank Main discuss using FOIA to hold police accountable. Alden Loury is the moderator.

Chip Mitchell, David Heinzmann and Frank Main discuss using FOIA to hold police accountable. Alden Loury is the moderator.

Main: Be very specific in requests, such as “police” and “shot” and “south side.”

Main: Public Access Counselor has made it easier. “We appeal almost everything now. I don’t think I’ve lost a case with them.”

Kalven: PAC staff is overburdened.

Heinzmann: Court records are not a FOIA issue. Those records are really critical in covering cops. Eg. Lawsuits: Attorneys might give you the depositions by pox officers.

Main: Chief judge’s office is immune from FOIA, but amenable to providing information.

WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell: The more you know and the more they know you know …

Main: City of Chicago data portal valuable.

Main: Dash cam and body cam videos are supposed to be handed over to the public.

Alden Loury of BGA moderator

Matt Topic and Bob Herguth talk about the nuts and bolts of crafting a public records request.

Matt Topic and Bob Herguth talk about the nuts and bolts of crafting a public records request.

John Chase, John O'Connor and Tim Novak tell how to get access to politicians' private emails.

John Chase, John O’Connor and Tim Novak tell how to get access to politicians’ private emails.

Further observations:

FOIA advice

You might get lucky. Keep your requests specific. Focus on an agency, not an individual employee. Tribune is trying to establish in court that the mayor’s office is an agency, said reporter John Yates. If you ask for too much, the agency may say it’s too burdensome to comply. If necessary, ask for info in bits and pieces over time. Tim Novak from the Sun-Times says he starts every investigation with a FOIA request. John O’Connor from the AP says some of his best scoops come from following up someone else’s story a year or two later,

If you have a good FOIA case, remember government body pays legal fees if they lose. Some attorneys will take case pro bono.

A sign that something needs to be investigated? If CPD dismisses as “gang related.” Think Hadiya Pendleton and Tyshawn Lee.

Early Bird deadline EXTENDED to MARCH 8 for Region 4/5 Conference

Region 4 5 Conference Logo

March 1 is the deadline to save money with an Early Bird registration for the Region 4/5 Spring Conference April 1 and 2 in Cincinnati has been EXTENDED to MARCH 8.

The conference opens at the Kingsgate Marriott and Convention Center with a reception Friday at 5 p.m. Then, professional and student journalists are invited to a full day of training sessions – including programs on using new tools such as virtual reality and drones to help further your reporting.


With more than 12 breakout sessions, the conference focuses on four tracks:
• History in Journalism
• Tools & Techniques
• Diversity Matters
• Building on Basics

In addition to programming, the conference will feature the presentation of the prestigious Mark of Excellence Awards for both regions. Be there to help recognize the regions’ best college journalism.

To register, visit the Eventbrite site,

Early-bird registration is $75 for SPJ members, $55 for student members, $130 for non-members, and $75 for student non-members. Register by March 1 to lock in these fantastic rates. Also, be sure to check out the conference website,, to stay up-to-date on programming and speakers.

Make your reservation at Kingsgate by calling 513-487-3800 and asking for Society of Professional Journalists conference rate – only $119+tax for a king or double.

For more details, contact Region 4 Director Patti Newberry at, Cincinnati SPJ Chapter President Tom McKee at, or Region 5 Director Deborah Givens at

Tickets on sale for Chicago FOIAFest

Chicago Headline Club logo

Tickets are now on sale for the Chicago Headline Club’s fourth annual FOIAFest!
Come learn from more than two dozen journalists and other experts on everything from police misconduct and politicians using private email for public business, to filing a public records request and digging through data.

Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, kicks off the day as our keynote speaker.

Please visit, our website dedicated to public access issues, for a complete schedule and line-up of speakers.

Here’s a snapshot of what you need to know:
WHAT: FOIAFest 2016
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, March 12
WHERE: Loyola University Chicago’s Water Tower campus
* Sessions split between Lewis Towers, 820 N. Michigan Ave. (entrance is on Pearson Street) and Corboy Law Center, 25 E. Pearson St. More details to come.
COST: (breakfast and lunch included)
$5 for students
$15 for Chicago Headline Club members
$20 for non-members

FOIAFest is generously supported by the Chicago Headline Club, Loyola University Chicago and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Louisville chapter hosts Campaign 2016: What a Wild Ride!

Ekstrom Library’s Chao Auditorium

University of Louisville

7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25

The 2016 presidential campaign has dominated the news for months – and will likely continue to do so as the November election gets closer. The Society of Professional Journalists, Louisville Pro Chapter, will host a panel discussion on the election on Monday, Jan. 25, at the Ekstrom Library’s Chao Auditorium at the University of Louisville beginning at 7 p.m. (Directions; Map showing parking areas)

With no clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination and perhaps several contenders for the Democratic nomination, there’s lots to discuss and consider with the upcoming election. The Republican party caucus in Kentucky will be the first test in the Commonwealth of the strength of GOP candidates. That’s set for March 5. The Democratic primary is set for May, as are both Republican and Democratic primaries in Indiana.

Which way will Kentucky go? Will Trump run as a third party candidate? Is Hillary Clinton a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination – or will Bernie Sanders truly challenge her? How does the political landscape differ between Indiana and Kentucky – or does it?

The panel will be moderated by Dr. Jasmine Farrier, an associate professor of political science at University of Louisville. Panelists will be:

The event is free and open to the public. It is co-sponsored by SPJ, Louisville Pro Chapter, the University of Louisville School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Communications and The Cardinal, which is the student-run newspaper at the University of Louisville. For more information about the SPJ Louisville Pro chapter, visit our web site,

Chicago Headline Club extends Lisagor Award contest statewide


CHICAGO, November 23, 2015 – Journalists, critics and bloggers from across Illinois will be eligible for the first time to compete this year for the prestigious Lisagor prizes awarded by the Chicago Headline Club, one of the largest Society of Professional Journalists chapter in the U.S.

The awards for exemplary journalism, named after Peter Lisagor, a former Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Daily News, have been presented by the Headline Club since 1977. Their purpose is to inspire journalists to follow Lisagor’s example of excellence.

Until this year, the awards were limited to nominees based in Chicago and northwest Indiana. The Headline Club now is extending its recognition to the best journalism from the full state of Illinois in 2015.

“This is a state that needs and produces superb journalism, and those efforts need to be highlighted and encouraged,” said Odette Yousef, Headline Club president and a reporter at WBEZ 91.5FM.

Lisagor was an influential newspaper correspondent and columnist in the 1960s and ‘70s who regularly appeared on Meet the Press and Face the Nation. When he won a Peabody Award in 1973, the organization called him a “master of incisive interrogation” and said he was inspired by an editor who advised reporters to “walk down the middle of the street and shoot the windows out on both sides.”

The Lisagor contest includes 128 awards in seven categories, including general interest, broadcast TV and radio, both daily and non-daily print, online, specialty/trade and documentaries. The Headline Club added two new awards this year: Best Data Journalism and Best Design.

The club also awards three special prizes: The Watchdog Award, for excellence in public interest reporting; The Anne Keegan Award, named after a former Chicago Tribune reporter who highlighted the plight and achievements of the common man; and The Lifetime Achievement Award.

Nominations must be received online by January 11, 2016, for work between January and December, 2015. Nominated work should be entered online at either or

The 39th annual Lisagor Awards presentation and dinner will be Friday, May 6, 2016, at The Union League Club of Chicago. Finalists will be named in mid-March.

Reporting on Fracking Conference Nov. 6 at Berea College

Fracking Flier2

A “Reporting on Fracking” conference is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 6, hosted by Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Communication and student chapter Society of Professional Journalists and Berea College’s Department of English.

A full-day of information and reporting tips from government, industry, and environmental leaders along with journalists covering environmental issues will be offered. Speakers will include: Brandon Nuttall, Kentucky Geological Survey; Erica Peterson, WFPL-Louisville Public Media; Kim Collings, executive director, Kentucky Division of Oil; Amanda Womack, freelance science writer and member Society of Environmental Journalists; Lisa Bicknell, editor, Citizen Voice and Times; Andrew McNeill, executive director, Kentucky Oil and Gas Association; and Craig Williams, Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

Luncheon speaker will be Alissa Kiedrowski, a public relations professional with a background in crisis communication.

Registration will begin at 8 a.m. with the first session at 9 a.m. Morning refreshments and lunch will be provided. The final session will end at 3:30 p.m.

Cost for the full day of sessions and lunch is only $10. Individuals, business and school groups are asked to pre-register by emailing Dr. Deborah T. Givens at or Dr. Kate Egerton at Please pre-register by Friday, Oct. 30. Payment will be taken at registration by check made out to Berea College or cash. Business and school groups can make arrangements to be billed by contacting Egerton.

Conference Site and Parking; Tabling by Groups

The conference will take place in the Baird Lounge in the Berea College Alumni Building, #28 on the campus map.

PARKING for visitors is here:  Parking permits will be available at registration.

DIRECTIONS to campus are here:


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