Connecticut Legislature bars access to records in murder cases in wake of Newtown shootings

Taking a page from Utah’s HB477 debacle, Connecticut lawmakers pushed through a secretly-drafted bill gutting part of the state’s open-records law with little public input.

As reported by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Lawmakers approved legislation this week that makes photos and video of murder victims private records, as well as bar 911 recordings where someone discusses the conditions of murder victims.

The law, which went into effect immediately, also requires the requester to make the case that the documents should be public, rather than having the bureaucrats prove that the records shouldn’t be released.

The legislation was drafted secretly by Gov. Dannel Malloy’s staff, the state’s top prosecutors and legislative leaders. It went through the legislature without public hearings. There was one change made though: The original bill only applied to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but was expanded to cover all murders.

“My goal with this legislation was to provide some measure of protection for the families affected by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” Malloy was quoted as saying.

The idea was to prevent the crime-scene pictures from popping up on the Internet. While one could argue that was a good intention, we all know which road is paved in good intentions.

The law is bad for multiple reasons.

First, as SPJ President-Elect David Cuillier pointed out, it sets the dangerous precedent of holding back public records because their contents might disturb somebody.

As a former emergency medical technician, I can understand why some of the Sandy Hook parents may not want to see crime-scene pictures of their children. But, that is not enough of a reason to alter a foundational principle of our form of government, access to public documents.

The massacre was horrific, but it has also become politically charged as well as historically significant. In this case, it is important to have access to all the records of the event to ensure that the historical record is correct and keep demagogues on either side of the debate from distorting it for selfish reasons.

The law is based on the assumption that whoever requests the documents is going to splash them all over the Internet or on newspaper pages. That is a rather bold assumption, one that puts the governor and the Legislature in the unconstitutional position of playing super-editor over the state’s media. Most journalists would use the records as research documents, providing background and context for the information.

And if there is a case for running it, it should be left to the individual news outlet to decide. In some cases, a 911 recording can illustrate the horror, chaos or even the bravery that occurred during a tragedy far better than a reporter’s attempt to summarize it. It might offend some people, but that is a call journalists should make and not politicians who may be looking to score points with the public.

Censorship and locking up records is never the right response to what one perceives as bad speech. The only response should be more speech.

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