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Task Force Member Urges Caution Regarding Secrecy

by | Aug 21, 2013 3:50pm () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Legal, Media Matters, Newtown

Hugh McQuaid Photo A member of the legislature’s panel tasked with balancing transparency and victim privacy expressed concern Wednesday that the group’s membership is weighted too heavily in favor of reducing public access to information.

The task force was formed as part of a new law which prevents the public release of any photograph or video recording that portrays the body of a homicide victim. The law also prohibits, for one year, the release of certain law enforcement audio recordings like those describing the bodies of children who were murdered.

Families of some of the victims of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre lobbied heavily for the bill late in the legislative session.

During the group’s second meeting, James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said that the law that created the task force was negotiated in secret by the governor’s office, the legislature, and the chief state’s attorney’s office. Most of the panel’s members, he said, prioritized privacy over transparency.

“My concern is that a clear majority, in my opinion, of this task force comes down on the side of privacy and secrecy,” Smith, a retired newspaper editor, said.

In addition to Smith, the group includes four lawmakers, four members of the media, the chief public defender, chief state’s attorney, the state victim advocate, the emergency services and public protection commissioner, a constitutional law professor, a police officer, a community nonprofit director, as well as the executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission.

“Those of us on the [freedom of information] side have a real job here to try to remind all of us that, I think, in a democracy it is wrong to hide information about crimes from the American people,” he said.

Smith’s comments came as the group was reading through the law that created it and trying to interpret its provisions. There were areas that caused confusion among members of the group.

“It doesn’t surprise me that we’re having trouble with this legislation because it was all done in secret,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, tried to explain the hurried process that preceded the passage of the bill. He said lawmakers only became aware of the issue late in the legislative session after a “high profile” individual expressed interest in obtaining images and documents from the Sandy Hook massacre. Fasano said legislators were concerned that person would create an “exploitive media piece.” After the meeting, Fasano said he was referring to filmmaker Michael Moore.

Without time to hold public hearings, Fasano said lawmakers passed the FOI legislation but also created the task force to look at the issues from more perspectives. He said the legislators who promoted the bill made it clear they did not consider it “the answer.”

“We had to react because this has never happened in Connecticut to that degree. I think it was a reasonable stopgap method while the [Sandy Hook] investigation was still going on . . .” he said. “I want to be clear: if it was the intent of the legislature to say ‘We want to do this in the deepest part of the Capitol and we’re done,’ you would not have this task force.”

Later in the meeting, Smith said he had been “counting noses” and viewed the panel’s membership as leaning towards victim’s privacy over open access to information. He said he hoped everyone could keep an open mind and “have a reasonable debate.”

Smith interjected again when panel’s conversation turned to whether aspects of the law should be interpreted to apply to all crime victims rather than just the victims of homicide. He argued that the group should not allow that to happen.

“It began with the families in Newtown and then it moved to every homicide in the state of Connecticut, which is very unwise. We can not allow it to mean every crime committed. We simply can not allow that to happen,” he said.

Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, said he understood Smith’s perspective, but said that lawmakers intended the law to apply to explicit images of violence.

“We’re talking about graphic images of a crime. We’re talking about graphic images of a victim of something and whether or not that is something that should be released for public consumption,” Carter said.

Smith said the panel should not seek to “sanitize” culture, a practice he said newspapers often engage in rather than upset their readers. He said upsetting images of violence in Vietnam helped change the public’s perception of that war.

“We have to be very careful about what we think we can make people avert their eyes to,” he said.

Since the shooting, Moore publicly denied suggestions that he called for the release of the Sandy Hook images after becoming the target of criticism from the victims’ parents.

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(6) Archived Comments

posted by: Noteworthy | August 22, 2013  9:17am

The public’s right to know Notes:

1. We don’t need a history lesson from Carter or Fasano on the genesis or intent of this legislation. The public expects legislators to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. There was ZERO reason to hatch this legislation in secrecy.

2. There is next to nothing you people do that should be done in secret. Maybe contracts. That’s it. More and more is done behind closed doors and out of the view of the public. Every hear of Keno? Is that Michael Moore’s fault too?

3. There is a 200 year old history in this country of the media using its good judgement on what to publish. Legitimate news operations are judicious. That you can find more graphic images elsewhere is not found in the mainstream. If people want to search it out, so be it. If you’re worried about graphic images, go talk to the anti-abortion crowd who weekly plaster us with pictures of dead babies and fetuses.

4. This entire task force is a disgrace to democracy. Your mission is a travesty to freedom of information. That any of these people defend what they are doing in the name of Michael Moore is laughable.

5. What’s the excuse for all the rest of the secrets done in our name? Michael Moore? That makes me quiver with concern.

posted by: DrHunterSThompson | August 22, 2013  9:20am

Jokers to the left of me, jokers to the right.
Here I am stuck in the middle ........

HST

posted by: DirtyJobsGUy | August 22, 2013  10:44am

What is the motivation for this?  Cops almost never release gory photos of crime scenes (unless the victims are criminals) and death certificates just state the cause of death with no other gory details.  So for the Newtown victims there would be no public photos of anyone but perhaps Adam Lanza and the death certificates would read Gunshot for cause of death.  No there is something to hide here most likely related to 911 tapes.  My guess is the first responders waited for their required backup while lanza was still shooting.  No fault on the cops but it undermines the Governors political goals.  The ability to keep lots of this secret relies on the Democrats view that they will be in power forever so secrecy aids them.

posted by: ASTANVET | August 22, 2013  1:29pm

Public servants operate on behalf of the public.  There is nothing that is done on behalf of the public that should be kept secret.  This is a costly investigation, and should be part of the public record.  That is not a partisan statement, that is just a ‘getting what we pay for’ statement.  We need to ensure there is not waste fraud, abuse and excessive billing for an investigation we ‘the people’ pay for.  No secrecy in government - sheesh, it’s like nixon and hoover are spawning right in the CGA.

posted by: dano860 | August 24, 2013  2:23pm

This is a memorandum from A.G. Eric Holder March 19, 2009 on FOIA.
In it there are many references the Presidents beliefs and desires, IE, “The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”
States should have to follow the Feds on this policy.
Things may have been horrible at the Newtown event but everyone has a right to know what transpired there. That means from the first moment that things started to unfold to the last period on the final report.
911 calls and all radio communications and response actions need to be evaluated so any problems or issues that may have occurred can be used as learning opportunities.
There was never any special treatment provided to or for the families of all the TwinTowers horror, that was by far a larger event than Newtown.

posted by: ad_ebay | August 26, 2013  1:57pm

The only reason there is prurient interest in all that went on is because there was a move to “secrecy” that shone the light on it. 

What happened that some are trying to hide?  Are there questions as to police handling the days events?  Did the school system goof it up years earlier?  Was the family of the shooter REALLY negligent in their handling and permissive attitude towards and ultimately dangerous personality?

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