September 14th, 2012
Why I’m an SPJ Member
By Donald Meyers
The Sanpete Messenger, a weekly newspaper serving the communities in Utah’s rural Sanpete County, was in an open-records fight with the Utah Highway Patrol.
Christian Probasco, a reporter with the Messenger, was seeking information on an accident where a teenage boy who wandered away from a group home was hit and injured by a car on a rural highway at night. The UHP provided the information, but redacted the information on the boy. Probasco said he was told that the patrol had a policy to not release minors’ names, despite state laws saying that the media had access to accident reports.
Probasco wasn’t willing to let it go, especially with the possibility that the denial was politically motivated; he and his publisher said the investigating officer might be the co-owner — with a local mayor —of the group home the boy was living at.
Probasco appealed this denial through the Department of Public Safety and was denied, all claiming that releasing the boy’s name would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.” The next level of recourse was the Utah State Records Committee, a body that hears appeals under the state Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). Appearing before the committee can be intimidating for the average person. Those who speak have to swear to tell the truth under pain of perjury charges. They have to present their cases in about a half-hour. And they have to face the people withholding the records and their attorneys.
In this case, Probasco and his publisher, Suzanne Dean, were facing an assistant Utah Attorney General. And, they had to take off an entire day to make the trip to Salt Lake City.
Adding to the potential stress level were the consequences if they lost. If the board agreed with the highway patrol, it would set a precedent for withholding minors’ names, and embolden bureaucrats to further shroud records in secrecy.
Fortunately, Dean and Probasco didn’t go in alone. SPJ was at their side.
SPJ National FOI Chairwoman Linda Petersen was there, testifying that the state’s arguments for privacy were a ridiculous twisting of GRAMA. “It is a very dangerous thing when law enforcers become interpreters of the law,” Petersen said.
Sheryl Worsley, president of the Utah Headliners Chapter was there as well. She told the committee that having information like Probasco sought is what helps journalists tell the stories that make a difference, that put human faces on problems and motivate people to right wrongs.
Joel Campbell, a former National FOI chairman, also reminded the committee that the state Legislature said journalists could have all names listed in a motor-vehicle accident report, giving them the historical background on the legislation.
I was there as part of the contingent of reporters covering the hearing, many of whom were alerted by Campbell, Petersen and Worsley to the significance of the hearing.
The good news is that Probasco won. The committee ruled that the state, which even went as far as to suggest the teen should not be named because there was a possibility he might be criminally charged for walking in the road at night, failed to prove the request was a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. I can’t say if SPJ’s presence tipped the scales, but it showed that someone was watching and willing to stand up for the public’s right to know.
The case is not over just yet; the state is mulling a possible appeal to district court. But Dean and Probasco know if that should happen, they have friends in SPJ who will stand beside them at the barricades.
And that is why I’m an SPJ member.