Narrowly Tailored Bill Seeks To Keep Some Newtown Records Secret
Draft legislation released by the governor’s office calls for making special exceptions to the state’s Freedom of Information law as it applies to records of the victims of the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown.
The proposal is the result of talks with the governor’s office, legislators, and Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane’s office. Although Kane said Wednesday he was looking for broad exemptions, preventing the release of certain crime scene photographs and 911 recordings, the legislation released by Malloy’s office is tailored to the Newtown incident.
The language, which would require that certain records only be released with the consent of the victims of the shooting or the victim’s immediate family.
“Nothing shall require the disclosure of any record that consists of a photograph, videotape, digital recording or other image or audio transmission or recording depicting the physical condition of any victim without the written consent of the victim or, if the victim is deceased, a member of the victim’s immediate family,” the legislation said.
The bill also would exempt the release of the death certificates of people killed in the incident, potentially eliminating the need for another piece of legislation that was proposed by Newtown lawmakers this year to limit public access to death certificates. That bill was drafted in response to complaints from a town clerk about requests from the media. The death certificates for those killed in the incident would still be available at the Department of Public Health. The bill will exempt the Newtown Town Clerk from having to hand them out.
“A lot of people, including our office, have heard the concerns expressed by the families of Newtown victims, and are exploring ways to respect the families’ right to privacy while also respecting the public’s right to information,” Malloy administration Chief of Staff Mark Ojakian said in a statement.
Chris VanDerHoef, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, said that the group was not opposed to the legislation because it was tailored narrowly to apply only to the Newtown shooting.
“The newspapers never like it when you open the FOI Act, but the bill is drafted in a clear and concise manner to deal with this specific situation,” he said.
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, said she was happy the bill was narrowly tailored and they took care to make sure the transcripts of the 911 recordings would be made available.
“It’s not a wholesale revision of the Freedom of Information statutes,” Murphy said Wednesday. “On the other hand, we’re concerned about the precedent it sets.”
Kane, who spoke to reporters Wednesday in the Legislative Office Building, said his office was looking for the changes to apply to more cases than just the Newtown shooting.
He said he wanted the changes to apply to other cases in “the exact same way as in the Sandy Hook case.” Photographs taken at the crime scene which depict injured or dead victims would not be released, he said. Kane said it “would have been nice” to have enacted the legislation in the past, but the Newtown case made the issue more pressing.
“Now we have a number of families expressing very real and legitimate and serious and strong concerns that present a real need to do it to protect them, and yes, it’s an opportunity,” he said.
Kane was asked about criticisms of the process that led to the legislation. It was drafted without the public’s knowledge and did not go through the typical legislative process, which includes public hearings. Kane called the concerns “understandable.”
“It would have been nice if that happened. But sometimes if there’s an urgency at this point in the session, it’s more important to get the legislation through,” he said.
In a letter to Malloy’s office Wednesday, the newspaper association, the Connecticut Broadcasters Association, and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information cautioned against changing the Freedom of Information laws in response to the shooting.
“While many tragic events have made us question whether the disclosure of information is always in the best interest of a society, history has demonstrated repeatedly that governments must favor disclosure. Only an informed society can make informed judgments on issues of great moment,” the group wrote in the letter.