60 years fighting for open government
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information had reason to celebrate at its annual meeting this month. It is the 60th anniversary of the group’s founding by Connecticut journalists seeking to protect the public’s right to know, a right not always appreciated or understood by the public, or by some public servants at every level of government who prefer to perform many of their functions away from the prying eyes of the taxpayer.
Also this year the group campaigned successfully to restore access to police arrest records lost in a state Supreme Court decision. Recognizing police could use the decision to keep the public in the dark about the circumstances surrounding arrests, the court itself recommended that the legislature explore remedial action.
This the legislature did, over the initial opposition of Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane. He eventually negotiated a compromise with Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission and her staff, and James Smith, president of the CCFOI. CCFOI cited the efforts of Rep. Ed Jutila of East Lyme for his fine work in shepherding the bill though the House to unanimous approval. CCFOI presented the Democrat with one of its Champion of Open Government awards at the annual meeting
The Supreme Court had gone against decades of FOI commission rulings in determining last year that between the time of arrest and the conclusion of the individual’s prosecution, the police need only release so-called “blotter information,” defined as name and address, time and place and the charge. But the court also noted there are good reasons for greater disclosure and said the legislature could try to fix the overturned law. Ultimately, the legislature agreed.
As a result, the public will again have access to arrest information beyond the “name, rank and serial number” restrictions of the court decision.
Please note that we said, “the public will again have access,” not the press. Even though the reporter is usually the person requesting information, he or she is the representative of the public that will be its recipient and beneficiary. This is a truth not particularly self-evident to some.
There have always been doubts about the motivation of journalists in seeking public information. We still hear the old saw about the pursuit of sensational headlines to sell newspapers, even though newspapers are, except in a very few large cities, mostly home delivered and have been for decades.
In requesting an arrest or any other public record, the news media are only trying to better inform their consumers, the public. Until this month’s legislative action, for example, the police were able to withhold the race of the person under arrest, despite the public’s right to assess whether police departments unfairly target minorities.
Access to police records isn’t exactly a new issue. A brief history of the CCFOI published for the anniversary meeting observes that “about the first thing CCFOI did was meet with the Chiefs of Police Association of Connecticut” to discuss ways of “making police records involving public information more uniform throughout the state.”
After that, the organization turned to another perennial, public meetings, with Bernard Colby of The Day relaying to the General Assembly the still misunderstood truth that, “When public information is withheld, the newspapers lose a story but the people are the real losers. They lose contact with and control of their government.”
These early efforts led 40 years ago to the passage of the state’s Freedom of Information Act and the establishment of the Freedom of Information Commission. Since then, under its pioneering executive director, Mitchell Pearlman and his successor, Ms. Murphy, the commission has educated generations of public officials about their rights and obligations under the law and fought fiercely to retain the commission’s independence and with it, open government.
Most recently, we have seen a power grab by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that resulted in the FOI Commission and the state’s other, previously independent watchdog agencies coming under his domain. This outrageous “reform” is something CCFOI might undertake to undo as it begins its seventh decade.