A terrible choice to shelter crimes in secrecy

As the 2013 session of the Connecticut General Assembly was about to end, it passed a law abridging the freedom of the press.

That's one of two freedoms the First Amendment tells us Congress "shall make no law abridging." Abridging, as in diminishing or curtailing free speech or the press.

The law made by the Connecticut legislature bans public access to crime scene photographs and videos, 911 calls, police radio recordings and other criminal evidence that could be viewed as an invasion of the crime victim's privacy.

Passed in secret in the session's final hours, without a public hearing, discussion or debate, the law was meant primarily to protect the privacy of the surviving victims and families of the Newtown massacre of 20 young children and six adults the previous December. It was, by any measurement, well meaning.

Not considered, however, were the consequences of denying the public's right to information and knowledge of how police or other law enforcement handle or mishandle the most serious crimes. The legislature, in an emotional time, without much thought, had made a very bad law.

But legislators apparently had something of a guilty conscience and, along with the law, they created a task force charged with reconciling the often conflicting right to know and the right to privacy.

Then it rigged the membership of the task force to favor the right to privacy, especially as it applies to crime victims.

On Dec. 17, the task force, which was composed of legislators who voted for the bill, state officials, police, prosecutors, victims' advocates and a few journalists, did what its founding fathers and mothers in the General Assembly expected it to do.

It voted 14-3 for what its apologists on the task force hailed as "a compromise" that would let reporters and others look at crime evidence but not report it to the public without government permission.

The only votes in opposition were from Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission, James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a former editor of several state newspapers, and Susan Storey, the state's chief public defender.

Also voting for it were the non-journalists chosen to represent radio and television, a radio station owner and TV general manager, and journalists or former journalists who thought the compromise - the look but don't touch compromise - was better than nothing.

Really? Crime scene photos, 911 tapes, recordings between law enforcement and emergency staff are now considered public information and if government doesn't want them released, it must prove to the Freedom of Information Commission why the information should be withheld. The task force would remove the burden of proof from the government and force the individual seeking the information to prove to the FOI Commission that the information should be public.

"It began with Newtown, then became every homicide forever into the future," said Smith, one of the three votes against the compromise. "We're shutting down information that needs to be available, so a society can make decisions about how we live."

One of the 14 votes came, as expected, from State Rep. Debra Lee Hovey, who happily reminded us printing or broadcasting evidence without permission would be a Class D felony.

Hovey, who represents part of Newtown, is the legislator who saw a visit by former Congresswoman Gaby Giffords as an invasion of the community's privacy. Giffords, who nearly lost her life when shot by a gunman in Arizona, was told by Hovey in a Facebook rant, "Gabby (sic) Giffords, stay out of my towns."

State Sen. Leonard Fassano saw the restrictions as a way of protecting people from seeing awful things on the Internet, which he saw when he made a search. Of course, no one has to search for or look at these photos but no one should be deprived of the right to do it either.

This debate recalls some advice given to Dartmouth graduates 60 years ago when what we were allowed to see and read was being challenged by Joe McCarthy and his acolytes in the name of fighting communism. The speaker was Dwight Eisenhower.

"Don't join the book burners," said the new president. "Don't think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed."

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