At the end of the last session of the General Assembly, lawmakers working in secret passed a bill needlessly limiting public access to crime scene media information — apparently because of a false rumor that a noted filmmaker was going to publish photos of victims of the Newtown massacre.
Now a task force wants to take a bad law and make it worse.
Enough. Cramming something through at the last minute with no public input, based on one incident, even a horrid one, is no way to craft laws. This is not a good law. It should be repealed. Stick it in the shredder.
For reasons that can only partly be explained by the December 2012 murders of 26 children and educators in Newtown, 2013 saw an unprecedented attack on the state's Freedom of Information Act and the whole idea of open government.
There were proposals to close parole hearings to the public, to close more public meetings, to keep death certificates private and to install a hefty charge just to look at public records. These needless government secrecy initiatives failed, thankfully, in large part because advocates for open government knew about them.
One they didn't know about slipped through. Public Act 13-311 created an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for visual images of homicide victims, if such would violate the victim's or surviving family members' privacy, and audio tapes that describe a homicide victim's condition (dead?). This information had generally been treated as open to the public.
This was a solution in search of a problem. The public had given lawmakers no reason to change the law. The Connecticut media wasn't splashing lurid photos of homicide victims on its air or pages. So what prompted it?
Michael Moore. The filmmaker predicted on his blog last March that someone would release photos of the dead children and that this would spur gun safety legislation, as photos of the murdered black teenager Emmet Till had changed minds on civil rights legislation. Somehow this was twisted into a belief that Mr. Moore himself might effectuate the release and publication of the photos, something he quickly denied.
But a few Newtown parents called legislators, no one called Mr. Moore, and we have another law making government less open. The law created a 17-member task force to review the law, to determine if it struck the proper balance between privacy and right to know. The membership of the task force was weighted in favor of privacy, and that's where the recommendations fell in the final report last week.
The task force voted 15-2 to continue to restrict public access to crime scene media, adding 911 calls to photos or videos depicting homicide victims. Members of the public could view the materials at some central location but would be prevented from obtaining a copy unless they could prove that the release does not invade privacy.
Public Act 13-311 did something insidious to the right-to-know law. It shifted the burden to members of the public to show why a document should be a public record — instead of assuming a document is public unless an agency can show that it shouldn't be. The latter is the way FOI is supposed to work.
The task force also voted to keep the PA 13-311 FOI exemption for minor witnesses who witness certain serious crimes. This was unnecessary. If a young witness needs protection, the FOIA already had a provision for that. But how about the case where a minor testifies falsely, or is an accessory to a crime? Exemptions from FOI for minor witnesses should be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Privacy proponents could point to no FOI decisions that violated anyone's privacy. Lawmakers should repeal PA 13-311 and not undercut the FOIA unless there is a compelling reason to do so. And next time call Michael Moore.Copyright © 2015, CT Now