Lake County website sues sheriff over press policies

Tension between a Lake County website that aggressively covers breaking news and the county's outspoken sheriff has boiled over in a discrimination lawsuit against the county.

The husband-and-wife team running the Lake County News website filed a lawsuit contending that Sheriff Frank Rivero "blacklisted" them from press lists and put up other unfair obstacles to getting public records.

Rivero has declined to back down, even though some Lake County supervisors resoundingly criticized his actions. He said he has no obligation to email press releases to the media outlet, asserting its coverage of the sheriff and his department has been biased and inaccurate.

The fight centers on whether the Sheriff's Office can treat local news organizations differently because of the way they cover the news.

The First Amendment and California's public record laws are designed to keep public officials from being the arbiters of good reporting, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael nonprofit group that advocates for free speech and open government.

"No public figure likes their press," Scheer said. "Too bad, grow up. If you're going to be a public official, you have to be able to take some heat. And that heat is protected by the First Amendment."

The case is unlikely to make it before a judge. Paul Nicholas Boylan, an attorney representing the news organization, said he is deep into settlement talks with Lake County Counsel Anita Grant.

Lake County News is asking a judge for three actions: Instruct the Sheriff's Office how to respond to media requests; order the agency to comply with state public records laws; and order the office to stop discriminating against media "based on the content of their reporting," Boylan said.

The fight flared in October when Rivero told Lake County News editor Elizabeth Larson in an email that he would block her emails, not take her phone calls and that she and her husband must file formal public records requests to get information, according to the lawsuit.

"I am done with your 'National Enquirer' style of reporting and general disrespect of me and my office," Rivero wrote.

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