Kentucky journalists and open government advocates successfully fought off one state lawmaker’s attempt to restrict access to public records.
Kentucky Sen. Danny Carroll (R) withdrew legislation this month that would have restricted access to public records such as promotions, appraisal and discipline records of public employees.
It was a win for journalists and citizens in Kentucky. But Mark Horvit, a board member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said legislators and government bodies are increasingly trying to limit access to public information.The NFOIC, based in Gainesville, Florida, is an organization that makes sure state and local governments have policies to facilitate the public’s access to information.
A 2017 report by the Associated Press showed places where state legislators had adopted new restrictions on public records, including Alabama, which approved allowing public universities to keep secret all information related to their police forces. In other states, proposed restrictions failed after media organizations found out about them and exposed what legislatures were attempting to do. In Kansas, a bill that would have kept the state database of fired police officers secret stalled after a Wichita TV station showed how cities were hiring officers with questionable backgrounds, the AP reported.
Kentucky’s Sen. Carroll proposed to create a new section of state law to exempt categories of records from public inspection with hopes of protecting confidential information about public employees. Carroll, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, withdrew the bill after complaints from the Kentucky Press Association.
Horvit, formerly the executive director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, said restricting access to information is not only bad for journalists but for the public.
“Government is operating on behalf of the people,” he said. “Every time a legislator passes another law pulling more information about what they are doing from the public eye, it’s a dangerous precedent.”
Had the legislation been passed, it would have made it more difficult for Kentucky journalists to maintain checks and balances on public officials like police officers, firefighters and other social service professionals.
“It doesn’t matter, and it shouldn’t matter why someone wants public records,” Don Craven, general counsel for the Illinois Press Association said. “In Illinois, it doesn’t matter what you’re going to do with a public record. If it’s a public record, you are entitled to it and you can do with it what you will. The state or the public body can’t impose any limitations of what you’re doing.”
Craven, the author of the annual publication for the Illinois chapter of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said there would be a staggering effect to the government’s transparency if a bill similar to Carroll’s proposal were passed in Illinois.
Craven added that he does not think a bill like this would pass in Illinois with Chicago’s history of police misconduct, citing the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. (Van Dyke was sentenced last week to about seven years in prison). McDonald’s killing was made public after a freelance journalist filed a Freedom of Information Request for the dash-dam police camera that showed how he died.
Missouri Press Association attorney Jean Maneke said there has been discussion over the years in that state about the need for more accessibility to information but nothing has been done.
Information in employee personnel evaluations in Missouri is closed as well as disciplinary actions, but information about voting to discipline employees is public, she said.
Maneke added that journalists will still be able to report information from sources, but the records allow a level of certainty and confirmation to the story.
“When you take a job as a public employee, you lose some of that right to privacy as you would have as a private business employee,” Maneke said. “It’s important for people who apply for public jobs to realize that’s the kind of credibility issue they are going to have to deal with.”
Molly Walsh is a correspondent for GRJ based in Chicago, where she is a student at Columbia College Chicago. You can find her on Twitter @molly_walsh.