Finally, A Ray Of Open Government Sanity In The State Senate

After a year of emotion clouding reason in the public debate over freedom of information in Connecticut, a ray of sanity broke through those clouds last Thursday.

Efforts to curtail public access to 911 calls and photographs of homicides have gained momentum since last June, culminating in a widely criticized set of recommendations proposed last month by the legislature’s  “Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know.”  The Task Force, which was weighted in favor of privacy advocates, and which never even considered the possibility of recommending that the legislature repeal anti-Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) legislation it passed in almost total secrecy last June, recommended that 911 emergency calls and other records be made largely exempt from disclosure under the FOIA.

But in an interview with the Hartford Courant’s Jon Lender last Thursday–the opening day of the legislative session–Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said he objects to key parts of the Task Force’s report.  “I can tell you right now I’m not in favor of curtailing the same kind of access to the 911 tapes that we’ve had in the past Connecticut and really, I believe, all 49 other states have,” Williams said.  He added, “I believe that having greater access to important information that can help folks understand the context of our criminal justice system, and help in the reform of that system, is vital” and that “more information for the public is always better. It serves our democratic process.”

Those words are music to the ears of open government advocates throughout the State, who have spent the past 7+ months battling understandable, but misguided efforts to restrict public access to information, like 911 calls and crime scene photographs, that have been available to the public since Governor Ella Grasso signed Connecticut’s path-breaking Freedom of Information Act into law in 1975.

The fears about the public disclosure of pictures of the Sandy Hook Victims, mostly children, were completely unfounded. As I wrote in a post on this blog last October, I could not find a single instance in which graphic crime scene photographs were disclosed, and then published, in response to an FOIA request. And, to my knowledge, not a single witness appeared before the Task Force and testified that his or her privacy had actually been invaded by a disclosure of a document pursuant to the FOIA.  Task Force co-chair Angel Arce testified that he believed the media acted insensitively in repeatedly running video of a hit-and-run accident involving his father. His testimony was powerful, but the concerns he raised had nothing to do with the FOIA, and everything to do with the First Amendment–a “problem,” if it is one at all, that cannot be fixed by legislation.

Senator Williams should be roundly applauded for taking a public stand against the anti-FOIA juggernaut in Connecticut.

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