Utah Transit Authority backs off attempt to make writing about records denial criminal

Only in Utah, where legislators earned a Black Hole award for attempting to gut the state’s open records law, would a bureaucrat attempt to criminalize talking about a records denial.

The Salt Lake Tribune is challenging the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), which operates a bus and train system serving Salt Lake and Utah counties, for holding back crime statistics. The Tribune is seeking data about crimes that have occurred on the transit system as part of an ongoing series about crime trends in Salt Lake County. Fifteen other agencies have complied.

The Tribune reports that the transit authority, in its response to the paper’s appeal to the State Records Committee, not only wants its denial of the request upheld, but it also wants the paper and its reporters sanctioned for allegedly violating Utah Code 76-8-104, which says a person is guilty of a class A misdemeanor “if he threatens any harm to a public servant, party official, or voter with a purpose of influencing his action, decision, opinion, recommendation, nomination, vote or other exercise of discretion.”

The authority claimed that a Tribune reporter threatened to write a negative story if the records were not turned over.

When Tribune columnist Paul Rolly contacted the authority, he was told that it was a misunderstanding, that the attorney who drafted the response to the appeal was reacting emotionally. Rolly was told by transit authority officials that the authority was not alleging criminal conduct by the paper or its journalists.

Rolly said that Tribune reporter Lee Davidson said he never threatened a UTA spokesman with bad press for not providing the records. He told the spokesman that he would have to write that the UTA was not providing the records, Rolly reported.

The records committee, which cannot issue criminal sanctions anyway, will hear the Tribune’s case Thursday.

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