A sad day for Nebraskans’ right to know

I can’t tell you how disappointed I am to report what follows, but it’s news you deserve to know and need to understand.

As you may know, the Nebraska Journalism Trust filed a lawsuit in November 2022 related to a public records request. Months later a judge ruled in our favor.

This morning the Nebraska Supreme Court announced that it was overturning, in part, that lower court’s decision. This clears the way for the State of Nebraska to charge us an ungodly amount of money to gain access to public records related to the state’s growing nitrate-in-groundwater problem.

These are emails that could reveal how a state agency is grappling, or not grappling, with a gravely serious public health concern, and now they will likely remain hidden. I’m disappointed because I believe that these are records that we – and you – deserve and are in fact legally entitled to be able to see.

The state’s highest court appears to disagree.

This decision is a blow to Nebraska’s public records law, a law written to protect media outlets like ours and Nebraskans like yourselves from the secrecy of those who hold power.

It will now presumably be even easier for any state agency or elected official or bureaucrat to charge any newsroom, and any regular citizen, the price of a Cadillac for public records – a price that in reality will likely cause the newsroom or Nebraskan to go away.

To be clear: This was already happening regularly. It doesn’t take a law degree to guess that it will now happen more.

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It’s a blow to our efforts to shine a light on our dirty water. Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate west of Pennsylvania. Research shows that high nitrate in drinking water ties to elevated rates of kids with cancer. Reporter Yanqi Xu has done heroic work unveiling and unraveling this story. Read a summary of some of that work here.

But questions remain. What is the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy doing, or not doing, to solve this problem? And who are they speaking to as they do it?

I fear those questions are now harder to answer.

And finally, it’s simply a blow to the 10 words that Nebraska’s leaders once deemed so important that they etched them onto the north face of the State Capitol. 

“The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen.”

The Nebraska Supreme Court has decided to make it a little harder to watch the state, leading us toward something that does not feel like salvation.

This fight is far from over. I presume that those who understand the importance of the public’s right to know will take this fight to the Nebraska Legislature.

And this ruling won’t stop the hard-nosed, hardworking staff of the Flatwater Free Press from doing everything in our combined power to uncover and skillfully tell stories that Nebraskans deserve to know.

We will keep fighting because we believe in those 10 words etched on the Capitol. And I thank you for reading, for donating, for cheering us on and for fighting right alongside us. 

By Matthew Hansen

Matthew Hansen is the editor of the Flatwater Free Press. Hansen spent 16 years at Nebraska newspapers, as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and then a reporter and metro columnist at the Omaha World-Herald. The native of Red Cloud and one-time intern at the Red Cloud Chief and the Hastings Tribune now lives in Omaha and is married to Sarah Baker-Hansen, a longtime Nebraska food writer and restaurant critic.


When an adolescent, one of my Lincoln relatives (Tim Rinne) became suspicious of the creek water near his hometown of Gothenburg. In response, he submitted a sample to UNL’s East Campus. The assay results? You can imagine. Herbicide/pesticide run-off (primarily, in the form of nitrates) was polluting the water. After this? Tim was labeled a “troublemaker”. Kyrie Eleison.

My Mom lived in Cozad
She died of Leukemia and loved drinking that good old Nebraska water
While the parathion and malathion sprayed overhead in area fields every season.
I always wondered..

Oh jeez, enough with the over-the-top laments, FFP

To paraphrase our Dear Leader Joe, you can’t love our state only when you win.

In any case, FFP’s stance that taxpayers should fund its overly broad and burdensome records requests–that would have required THOUSANDS of hours of time from publicly-paid employees–is just unreasonable. The NE Sup. Ct. balanced the interests of the state and its taxpayers with records requests designed and intended to be harassing.

Sorry FFP, the sky is not falling. Just. Stop.

‘Rankle, I don’t think it takes “thousands” of hours by publicly paid employees to bring up information on nitrate reportable problems. I’ve been in several of their offices and the only thing I saw on their desks was their feet. There is a serious nitrate problem in this state and we better be addressing it.

“The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen.”

Sure is, but what makes the FFP believe that it, or its “journalistic” brothers, are the rightful enforcers of that maxim? Who assigned the watchdog role to the media? A: No one.

Sorry FFP, we CITZENS are the watchdogs, not the FFP. Get over yourselves.

I find your reasoning to be lacking and suspect your questions to be insincere.

How are journalists not citizens?

What is the likelihood that a citizen will take the time/energy to pursue a question of importance and then attempt to disseminate what they learn, if not through journalistic organizations?

Don’t see average people doing it. The press has always been a vanguard of accountability. Worked pretty good up until the mega-papers bought up the papers FFPs were working for and pushed out this reporting.
I for 1 would certainly like to see more like them calling out the things like this. Just the outright greed of the offenders, not to mention the danger to YOUR relatives should concern you.

FFP is on the correct side of this unfortunate dispute. Of course government officials are naturally motivated to maintain secrecy about their activities that, if disclosed to the public, would result in embarrassment to those government officials. Bravo for FFP!!!

Our Nebraska Govenor is Horrible!!!!!!!!!!! He got his way on this issue. This blocks the truth and puts every Nebraskan in harms way. It is an unfair ruling and is biased.

Our Govenor was behind this decision with the Nebraska Supreme Court. It puts every Nebraskan in harms way when free press is not allowed.

Isn’t the issue here that we, as Nebraskans, need solutions to a distressing problem? Is anyone okay with pediatric cancer, thyroid disease, colorectal cancer, birth defects, premature labor or miscarriages, all of which have high correlations to elevated nitrate levels? It’s important that FFP carry out the charge granted it by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This kind of reporting can provide the first steps to both a healthy population and a healthy ag industry. Kudos to Matt Hansen and Yanqi Xu.

A. Johnson, we CITIZENS are not in a good position to be watchdogs either, if we can’t afford to order the documents that we need. Plus journalists do the digging so that those documents can be shared with the public; or do you think every citizen should have to do (duplicate) the same research at their own expense? I can assure you, they won’t.

As we speak westco, a “tire” company in Alliance, NE is building a chemical plant to efficiently deliver nitrogen for years to come right within city limits near many people’s homes.

It is so important to share news with the “Citizens” of Nebraska who are unable to gather such information on their own. FFP you are doing an great service to our state Thank You.
Keep up the great job and know that many are educated by your efforts.

This is what happens when you vote for MAGA politicians. I have relatives with cancer with no known genetic predisposition. One of them is child with pediatric brain cancer. Our Governor is a billionaire pig farmer. Do you think he wants us to know the truth? Wake up people. One of our leading senators is a wealthy rancher. Vote for people who care about humans. Not people who care only about enriching themselves and their wealthy donors and friends. Wake up!!!

It’s been a published fact by other watchdogs that the Dems are now the party of the rich and elite.

This ruling does not block any information from being obtained. What it does is limits the self proclaimed ‘watchdogs’ from shutting down agencies with information requests.



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