The General Assembly should reject the recommendations adopted last week by the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know.
If the legislature adopts the recommendations of this panel, of which I was a member, it will make it easier for law enforcement officials to keep secret what the people in a free and open society should know.
In the name of sympathy for those families who have been victims of violent crime, particularly the horrendous Newtown killings, too many public servants are opting to deny the public its right to fully understand the violence being committed in our society.
The task force was an offshoot of a law passed in the last days of the 2013 legislative session with no public input that exempted visual images of homicide victims and some other information from the state's Freedom of Information Act. The 17-member panel was created to see if the law got the balance between privacy and right-to-know right. It was clear from the start how that balance would tilt; legislative leadership appointed the panel with a built-in nine-member majority favoring privacy and secrecy.
These proponents of privacy offered only a small window into what historically has been open to the public. A citizen, a reporter or a researcher can go to a police department or other agency and ask to see crime scene photos and listen to 911 tapes, but not copy them except through a long and laborious process. The task force has even taken the outrageous step of proposing that it be a criminal offense if those records are copied and made public without permission.
That aside, the task force voted 15-2 — I was one of the two — for more secrecy.
For example, the task force recommends putting 911 calls off limits. These emergency calls have always been public records and provide firsthand knowledge to the public about criminal activity. To make them secret is a move away from accountability, away from understanding, and away from trying to solve the problems of violence in our culture.
That is hardly the worst of it. The task force proposes permanent damage to the public's right to know. An underlying principle of FOI is that all public documents are considered open to the public unless a government agency can show why not.
Our traditional test, known as the "Perkins test" and developed in a 1993 court case, requires the government to show that the information sought is "highly offensive to a reasonable person and does not pertain to a matter of legitimate public concern" for it to be withheld from public scrutiny.
The task force proposes to shift the burden to the public to show why a particular document is not an "unwarranted invasion of privacy." This isn't chipping away at the law; this threatens to bring the state's highly regarded FOIA to its knees. It will leave the public with less information, force us to rely on half-truths or partial truths or emotions.
As it happens, the very law that the panel was reviewing, passed with no public input, was based on a false rumor that filmmaker Michael Moore was going to publish photos of the December 2012 Newtown massacre. See what happens with bad information?
We must retain the presumption that all information gathered by the government should be available to the public, except in the relatively few situations where a government agency can show otherwise.
The General Assembly unanimously approved our FOI statue in 1975, and Gov. Ella Grasso, who had campaigned for FOI legislation with statements like "people are tired of a state government that hides its acts behind a curtain of secrecy," signed it into law. She promised a government that is "open, honest, vital and concerned." She won the election, the first woman in the United States ever elected in her own right to be a governor, by some 204,000 votes, the second highest margin of victory in the state up to that time. We should not forget her words.
James H. Smith, a retired newspaper editor, is president of the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.Copyright © 2015, CT Now