Press associations side with bridge company in dispute over state documents

Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 7:15 PM CST
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Alabama’s two leading press associations are weighing in on a case before the state Supreme Court over whether Transportation Director John Cooper can withhold internal communications over a bridge planned for Baldwin County.

The dispute arises from the state’s plan to build a bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway about a mile west of the toll bridge in Orange Beach. That sparked a lawsuit by the toll bridge’s owner, the Baldwin County Bridge Company.

The company alleges that Cooper abused his position in approving the new bridge. To try to prove that, the company has asked for Cooper’s communications from 2017. Cooper and Gov. Kay Ivey are objecting, arguing disclosure would “hamper” decision-making and have a “chilling” effect. They are asking the Supreme Court to recognize “executive and deliberative process privileges.”

The Alabama Press Association and the Alabama Broadcasters Association are asking the court to reject that.

“Critically, this Court should not allow public officials, like Cooper, to assert the executive or deliberative process privilege when their alleged wrongdoing is squarely at issue in a case,” they wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief.

Executive privilege historically has been associated with the president and has been narrowly construed. The associations argue in their court filing that the governor and transportation director want to dramatically expand the concept, setting a dangerous precedent for the public’s right to know.

The brief argues that Cooper has note cited any constitutional provision or law to support his privilege claim.

“Applying an executive or deliberative process privilege to hide communications about where a bridge is going to be built will only make it more difficult for the public to acquire information about how its own government works,” the associations wrote.

If the court does side with Cooper, the press association argue “these privileges should be the narrowest in scope, qualified and subject to strict procedural requirements.”


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