Hearing Pits Right-To-Know Advocates Against Public Officials Over Post-Newtown Restrictions
Representatives of the news media and open government groups argued during a five-hour public hearing Wednesday against weakening public disclosure laws and clashed with public officials along the way.
The testimony came at a public hearing of a task force created under a new law that prevents the release of any photograph or video showing a homicide victim and bars the release of some audio recordings that describe the bodies of children who were murdered. The bill was passed by lawmakers after families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting appealed to the legislature to stop disclosure of records pertaining to the Dec. 14 incident.
The group, which is charged with making recommendations to the legislature, heard from representatives of several Connecticut media outlets and organizations that advocate for the state’s Freedom of Information Act. They offered task force members a number of reasons against recommending limits on what government records can be released to the public.
Chris VanDeHoef, executive director of the Connecticut Newspaper Association, pointed to a recent story which aired on CNN that led authorities to reopen an investigation into the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson in Georgia. Although police had ruled that the teen died of accidental asphyxiation, the network obtained autopsy records and found that before he died, Johnson had suffered blunt force trauma to his head and throat.
“None of this would have been discovered without CNN gaining access to the autopsy report” and having it analyzed by experts, VanDeHoef said. “Simply determining that information shouldn’t be available to the public because of its upsetting nature, is not in the best interest of an informed society’s right to know what those who are elected or charged with protecting us are doing.”
Andrew Julien, editor of the Hartford Courant, pointed to an investigation the newspaper conducted using publicly available recordings of 911 tapes and dispatch calls to demonstrate delays in emergency response times. He said the story led to policy changes with regard to how emergency calls are communicated.
“This is what we do when we are at our best,” Julien said. “This helps save lives. This is the kind of information that this legislature uses to help change policy to improve the public good.”
Although some from the media said news outlets carefully weigh decisions regarding the release of sensitive information, some legislators on the committee expressed doubts about the motives of reporters covering upsetting stories.
Rep. DebraLee Hovey, a Republican lawmaker whose district includes part of Newtown, said that after witnessing coverage of the Sandy Hook incident, she did not trust the media to appropriately balance privacy with the public’s right to know. She described as “obscene” the media’s conduct in Newtown following the shooting.
“Having been there, having observed the behavior of the media, it was outrageous. So to ask me, specifically, to trust the judgment of the media? I’m not willing to do that,” she said.
Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, suggested that news outlets were motivated by ratings and shock value. He said he took offense to the perception that the task force was looking to close off public access to the government.
“With all due respect, I don’t care about ratings, I don’t care about sensationalism, I don’t care about selling newspapers or TV: who’s going to get the best, goriest picture to go so they can do a spot all day long,” he said.
During the hearing, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane suggested modifying the state’s disclosure laws to enable the media and members of the public to listen to or view certain sensitive records but to also prohibit them from recording or copying them.
Claude Albert, legislative chair of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said he was uncomfortable with limiting the right to copy public documents.
“When you’re trying to make a case in the court of public opinion, sometimes you do need to show the actual evidence,” he said. “I’m also concerned that it would lead to the pursuit of a whole new class of exemptions . . . and that new class is documents to be seen but not copied.”
However, Albert said if the task force was determined to go in the direction restricting the right to copy records, he urged them to make the law permissive, allowing the family members of crime victims and government agencies to release the information if they deemed it would serve the public good. He said there should also be an appeal process.
“There has to be a way to demonstrate that a particular piece of evidence is in the public interest,” he said.