Arsenic And Old Lace . . . And Freedom Of Information?

The Connecticut Supreme Court will consider arguments tomorrow morning in a case concerning public access to historical records about Amy Archer Gilligan–the murderer who served as the inspiration for the 1944 movie (starring Cary Grant) and the 1941 play, “Arsenic and Old Lace.”  It turns out that Gilligan, who used arsenic to poison a resident in her nursing home, spent the years 1924 through 1962 confined to a Connecticut state mental institution, now Connecticut Valley Hospital.

The central issue in the case is whether certain historical records about Gilligan, specifically dental and physical examination records, are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act  on the theory that their release would constitute an “invasion of privacy.”  The long-established test for determining whether a release would constitute an invasion of privacy is whether the records are not related to a matter of legitimate public concern and, if so, whether their release would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

The Supreme Court may have some concerns that ruling in favor of disclosure necessarily means that the medical records of any person confined to any state hospital are subject to disclosure under the FOIA.  That concern is misplaced.  The FOIC  is simply asking the court to hold that the FOIA exemption covering personnel, medical or other records, the release of which could constitute an invasion of privacy, does not apply to the historical records of long-deceased individuals who were public figures during their lifetimes.  The privacy interest in such records is minimal.

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