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John Nelson

The passage of Kentucky’s Sunshine Laws in the mid-1970s emboldened and empowered a generation of young journalists, myself among them. At first we were tentative, but thanks to the Kentucky Press Association and the law’s author, Jon Fleischaker, we quickly learned not only how to use the Open Meetings and Open Records laws to hold elected officials accountable but to teach our readers about local government. KPA’s Freedom of Information Hotline, manned by Fleischaker, his wife Kim Greene, and other attorneys under their direction, provided the necessary training on a case-by-case basis as journalists encountered the need to use the laws. The hotline remains the association’s most valuable service.

With some of the strongest transparency laws in the country, Kentucky journalists matured in their profession. The laws helped us expose abuses, gave us leverage in our pursuit of information and elevated our relevance as watchdogs of government. They had a particularly noticeable impact on rural journalism, specifically at weekly newspapers and small dailies. 

On countless occasions, I filed formal complaints with city councils, fiscal courts, school boards and law enforcement agencies, ultimately forwarding those to the state attorney general’s office for rulings that I hoped would force those agencies to hand over documents or open doors to meetings. Sometimes, at great expense, we ended up in court, and on at least one occasion took the fight all the way to the state supreme court. We won most of those battles, but even the losses resulted in stories that informed readers about the workings of government and about what officials could or could not keep from them. Responsible media companies across the state had similar stories and invested in the good fight. They were, and still are, helped along the way by the KPA’s Legal Defense Fund.

These experiences helped me to coach and train the reporters I eventually supervised, and they developed in me a passion for open government that I carried throughout my carrier. As president of KPA in 2004, I sought to share that passion broadly — with the help of dozens of journalism students — in a project that audited the compliance with the Open Records Law statewide. The results were published in a special section delivered by every KPA member to their readers, and to every state legislator in Frankfort. The effort also resulted in a law requiring all local elected officials to be trained in their responsibilities with respect to the Open Records Act. 

In that same year, KPA sued the state to open juvenile courts. That lawsuit, which ended in the U.S. District Court of Appeals, failed to bring about the desired result, but it elevated awareness to the issue, and it, too, resulted in a change to the law that gave more transparency to the juvenile court docket, if not the courtroom itself. It also gave attention to the secrecy of family court, where children are routinely separated from their parents, who often feel they are denied the redress guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is my hope that efforts to make these courts more transparent will continue someday.

I am troubled by the trend away from transparency exhibited by the state today, and by the continued attacks on the law in the legislature. But I am proud of the fight that continues to be led by KPA and encouraged by the support of groups like the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.



John Nelson is a native of Mayfield who grew up in Valley Station. He was assistant editor of The Citizen Voice in Estill County, then worked in the coal industry and completed his degree at Eastern Kentucky University. He returned to the Citizen Voice & Times in 1986, and was editor and part owner of Pulaski Week in Somerset from 1987 through 1996.

John later served as executive editor of Advocate Communications, which included The Advocate-Messenger in Danville and The Winchester Sun, dailies of which he was editor. As president of the Kentucky Press Association in 2004, he oversaw the state’s first open-records audit and spearheaded a lawsuit to open juvenile courts. He was  named KPA’s most valuable member in 2006. He also served as president of the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Nelson was awarded the 2010 Scripps Howard First Amendment Center’s James Madison Award by the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information. He was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2013.


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