The press has an obligation to lead the protests against new laws denying public access to government records.
NEW YORK, NY, December 11, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/
-- Access to government records and information is under persistent assault across the country at all levels of government. Governments have a natural tendency to restrict public access to information in their possession. This tendency is particularly dangerous to a healthy democracy where government accountability through transparency is essential. Transparency allows the public to evaluate the decisions and actions of the government.
Public access to government records and information serves as the principal means for transparency and thus government accountability. So it is alarming when the various levels of government across the country seek to enact legislation calculated to conceal records and information from public view. It is even more alarming when governments can do so without any noticeable public opposition. The press has an obligation to lead the protests against new laws denying public access to government records. Yet there are a myriad of proposed bills making their way through state legislatures which are meeting no discernable resistance by the press. A few notable cases are discussed below.
Since 1973 when Oregon passed its open records law, the number of government records exempt from public disclosure has grown from 55 to more than 400 today, and the list of exemptions keeps growing. The information sought to be concealed from public access ranges from the seemingly mundane to the truly noteworthy. For example, several bills have been introduced in the State Legislature this year, ranging from bills that would restrict public access to bedbug infestation records and identity of state lottery winners to a bill that would deny the public access to information about pensions of retired state employees. Judson Randall who serves as the President of Open Oregon, a not-for-profit that provides education about Oregon's public records law, sums up the government's attempt to increase the number of records exempt from public disclosure as follows, "It just seems like government is trying to do all its business in private."
The aftermath of high-profile tragedies provides especially fertile ground for legislative efforts to restrict public access to government records. The understandable outpouring of public sympathy and collective instinct to shield the victims and their families from further trauma often provides cynical cover for legislation that would otherwise not be tolerated by the public. In such emotionally charged environments, criticism of such legislative efforts is often characterized as a lack of sufficient compassion for undeniably sympathetic figures. The unfathomable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut is a prime example of this type of legislation by emotional coercion.
Following the Newtown mass shooting, "The Courant" broke the story about a bill that was drafted in secret by state lawmakers that would permit authorities to withhold photographs, videos, 911 call recordings, and other government records depicting the physical condition of any Newtown victim. This secretly drafted bill only came to light because of a leaked email obtained by the newspaper. The proposed bill is especially antithetical to our deeply ingrained principle of government transparency. Not only is the bill itself a blatant violation of that principle by restricting public access to government records, but the very process of attempting to enact it is also violative of the notion of government transparency.
As "The Courant" observes, the drafting of the bill, "has bypassed the normal legislative route that includes a public hearing to gather public comment." The proposed bill is the very antithesis of this country's fundamental belief in open and transparent government decision-making and functioning as a means of ensuring accountability and also of informing the public. Yet there has been a shocking lack of media coverage of this dangerous item of proposed legislation.
The Newtown tragedy serves as a textbook example of how a high-profile incident can give rise to multiple misguided efforts to restrict public access to government records that would ordinarily be aggressively challenged but for the heightened deference to the emotional sensibilities of the victims and their families. Newtown officials were reportedly distressed by reporters' requests for death certificates following the shootings. As a result, a bill was introduced that would restrict public access to the death certificate of minors "when the disclosure of the death certificate is likely to cause undue hardship for the family of the child." Nora Galvin, a professional genealogist, notes that access to death certificates is "one of the ways that you identify the correct ancestors for people." She visits town clerks' offices about once a week to search for death certificates as part of her research.
This is a particularly insidious attempt based on the emotions of the moment to restrict public access to vital government records which serve legitimate public interests. According to Dr. David Gregario, Director of University of Connecticut's graduate program in public health, "Death certificates are one of the fundamental records we have to monitor the health of the population. Kelly McBride with the journalism think tank The Poynter Institute adds that journalists often utilize death certificates to "analyze stories about AIDS, SIDS and a lot of public health issues" and that lawmakers must be wary of passing legislation "based on a reaction to one particular case."
Proposals to deny public access to government records concerning specific individuals are irresponsible and naively short-sighted and would set a very dangerous precedent if enacted. Government records, especially of the type covered by the proposed bills, do not belong to individual government officials, agencies, or the government itself. This fact is all too frequently lost upon them. Nor do such records belong to any private citizen. Neither the government nor a specific group of private individuals have the right to unilaterally decide what the public needs or has a right to know. These records belong to all of us collectively--the general public. There is always something to be learned from the release of the type of material targeted by the proposed bills.
Just as the aftermath of a tragedy is often used to introduce legislation restricting public access to government records, prevention of embarrassment is similarly used to support legislation denying access to government records. For example, the New Jersey Legislature is currently considering a bill that would exempt mugshots from the state's open public records law in an effort to shield arrestees from embarrassment. Public access to mugshots serves several important public interests, including allowing the public to help identify wanted suspects, informing the public about those arrested in the community, and helping to provide transparency with respect to government decision-making and action.
The various bills restricting public access to government records that are routinely introduced in state legislatures represent the very antithesis of our fundamental belief in open and transparent government decision-making and functioning as a means of ensuring government accountability and also of informing the public. The politics of emotion must not be permitted to replace sound public policy making decisions on a matter as important as public access to government records. Denying the public access to government records should only be permitted in extremely limited situations when doing so is the sole means of safeguarding a vital public interest.
The public, especially members of the press, must voice their opposition to attempts at denying access to government records even if doing so is not popular in the short-term. Challenging attempts at concealing government records is in the public's long-term interests. Press associations and similar professional organizations must take the lead in combating the inevitable legislative assaults on the public's right to information. President Lyndon Johnson's observation as he signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 remains as relevant as ever: "No one should be able to pull the curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest."
Oregon: http://www.katu.com/politics/Bills-would-limit-Oregon-public-records- ... 64271.html
Connecticut: http://articles.courant.com/2013-02-20/news/hc-death-certificate-0221 ... lic-access
Hartford Courant article: http://courantblogs.com/capitol-watch/compromise-on-release-of-911-ca ... ords-bill/
Another Courant article: http://courantblogs.com/capitol-watch/clock-ticking-on-compromise-for ... e-records/