Exceptions diminish power of FOI Act

In 1975, by unanimous vote, the Connecticut General Assembly created the nation's first Freedom of Information Commission to enforce its new open-government law. Included in the legislative history of the bill is this explanation of its premise: "The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know."

Unfortunately, in the 40 years since that landmark legislation, state legislators have strayed from that ideal, adding exemption after exemption to the public disclosure requirements, concluding that they can discern what is good for us to know and not to know.

The exemptions are approaching a dangerous tipping point, gutting the very foundation of the FOI Act and weakening its role of providing a check on power. The public needs to care, to say, "No more," or else acquiesce to a governance based on, "Trust us, we're not doing anything wrong."

Take a bill that concerns the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. Among its duties, the board hears requests for pardons from people formerly convicted of crimes. Those who rehabilitate and prove themselves productive members of society can ask for a pardon that will erase their criminal record, improving career opportunities.

However, a public record remains in the application for a pardon and the minutes of the board's meetings. This has led to a bill that would exempt from public disclosure all pardon applications and, by extension, the meetings at which they are discussed and acted on.

That is a step much too far. The public has a right to know who is applying for pardons and the results. Closing these records and proceedings could invite abuse and favoritism. These meetings and records must remain open.

Fallout also continues from the Newtown school shooting tragedy of December 2012 and the resulting - and understandable - hypersensitivity to protecting the families of the child and adult victims.

Last year the General Assembly, with no public hearing and with no time for reflection as the session ended, voted to make crime scene photos and some 911 calls exempt from disclosure. The motivation was obvious - wanting to spare families from further trauma - but it was a dangerous step. In an open society, the circumstances surrounding killings should not be automatically made secret. Secrecy can cover up negligence or corruption, breeds public suspicion, and undermines faith in police.

Criticized for the last-minute alteration to long-standing policies, the General Assembly created the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know, to find "balance between victim privacy and the public's right to know." It was stacked with members having a predilection for secrecy - a prosecutor, four lawmakers who had voted for the bill, the victims' advocate and state public safety commissioner. While there were also free press advocates, any observer counting heads could see this committee was not likely to roll back the restrictions the new law had placed on public access.

In accordance with its recommendations, now under consideration by the legislature, no 911 calls about homicides could be released, only a transcript of the calls. Crime scene photos would also be closed from disclosure. "Any person" could privately review those records, but not make copies. To make the information public an individual would have to persuade the commission or a judge that doing so would not cause an "unwarranted invasion of privacy."

Currently the burden is on the government, not the citizen. To keep such records private the government must demonstrate the information is "highly offensive to a reasonable person" and of no "legitimate public concern." That is the correct standard.

The legislature should reject the task force recommendations and repeal the policies passed in the 11th hour of the 2013 session. There were sufficient safeguards in place before that ill-conceived legislation.

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