WASHINGTON, D.C. — On behalf of Bay Journal Media, Inc., publisher of the Bay Journal newspaper, Democracy Forward filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demanding the Trump administration produce documents that may explain why it abruptly canceled a grant to the award-winning newspaper that has been funded by the agency since 1991 through multiple changes in administrations. The filing includes requests that the EPA produce information regarding the role of John Konkus, a political appointee, in the unexplained grant termination.
Defunding an environmental news organization appears to be another example of the administration’s ongoing assault on First Amendment freedoms and science. In recent months, the EPA issued statements attacking an individual reporter by name for questioning the administration’s response to Hurricane Harvey, claimed a news organization attempted to “mislead Americans,” scrubbed references to climate change from its public websites, and canceled speaking appearances by agency scientists scheduled to discuss climate change.
The Bay Journal publishes fact-based articles about the Chesapeake Bay, which have included coverage of the Trump administration’s approach to environmental issues affecting the Bay, such as articles noting concerns from scientists and environmentalists about the impact of administration policies on offshore drilling, water regulation, and fish conservation.
“As near as we can determine, this type of political interference with an on-going grant is unprecedented,” said Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship. “If this decision stands, it will leave a gap in Chesapeake Bay news coverage by threatening our ability to provide the public with information about how actions by the EPA, and others, may affect restoration efforts.”
In January 2016, the EPA awarded the Bay Journal its most recent grant, for $1.95 million over six years. Without warning or justification, in August 2017, Bay Journal received a perfunctory notice that the EPA was terminating the grant “[d]ue to a shift in priorities.” The EPA explicitly told Bay Journal that the termination was not based on any failure by the Bay Journal to comply with the terms of the grant.
“President Trump’s disregard for a free press and the First Amendment appears to be infecting decision-making within the executive branch,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “The Trump administration must explain to the Bay Journal and the public this sudden pivot in priorities that would silence a valued newspaper’s reporting on the protected Chesapeake Bay.”
The suit was filed after the EPA failed to timely respond to the Bay Journal’s records request. Democracy Forward and co-counsel Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP are representing Bay Journal on a pro bono basis in this suit, as well as the newspaper’s pending administrative appeal. The appeal is due to be filed with the agency on November 20, 2017.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.