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Protect freedom of information in Connecticut

By Kristi Allen
On April 29, 2014

For my last column this year, I've saved something that's especially important to me: freedom of information. As a journalism student, protecting freedom of information is in the best interest of my career, but I think it should be important to all college students as well. We're moving into an era where information is more powerful than ever before. Our generation knows that better than anyone.
In Connecticut, we're lucky to have one of the best freedom of information laws in the country. Our law, passed in 1975, was the first FOI law of its kind in the US (and the world, according to some). According to the law, we're entitled to "any recorded data or information relating to the conduct of the public's business prepared, owned, used, received or retained by a public agency, or to which a public agency is entitled to receive a copy...whether such data or information be handwritten, typed, tape-recorded, printed, photostated, photographed or recorded by any other method."
Anyone can request documents through Connecticut's FOI law without stating their purpose or intended use. The law also states that meetings of government agencies must be open to the public it lays down reasonable fees for copying and distributing documents.
There are plenty of exceptions, such as address, medical records, trade secrets and documents currently in use in court.
The legal premise for these laws is beautifully simple: the government belongs to the people. Therefore, all of its records belong to the citizens, unless it's in the best interests of the citizens to withhold them. Connecticut did an excellent thing in recognizing this.
It was alarming when the state legislature and Gov. Malloy moved last year to significantly reduce the amount of information that was available to citizens from criminal investigations. Under the 1975 law, almost all the information from an investigation was public, including images, video and 911 tapes. But a law was passed last June to prohibit the disclosure of photos and video of homicide victims in state files, along with parts of 911 tapes.
This law was passed in the wake of the Newtown shooting. Lawmakers wanted to protect the families of victims from having to see graphic images from the police investigation files. Their aim was good- the families deserve privacy and seeing the photos may have hindered the recovery of many people affected by the tragedy. However, because the law covers all homicides in Connecticut, not just the ones that occurred at Sandy Hook, it does more harm than good and sets a bad precedent for the state.
Images from crime scenes are also important for a number of reasons, and one of them is evaluating police actions. Keeping the photos secret and hidden from the public could shelter officers in cases of wrongdoing. The 911 tapes have since been released, but the idea that they would ever be private is frightening. 911 tapes are released all around the country and they're vital to evaluating first responders. There are two bills in the legislature right now that would make homicide photos accessible to the public but uncopyable. This compromise must be implemented at the very least. We cannot have homicide records hidden from the public.
The biggest issue with this law, however, is not the above restrictions but the burden it places on citizens. Prior to the law change, a citizen could take the case to court for a document to be released and the burden was on the government to prove that a document should be kept secret. The default assumption was disclosure, and keeping something hidden required a special circumstance. Now, a citizen must argue that a document should be released, without being able to view it. The burden is on them to prove that disclosure would be beneficial. This is a gross inversion of Connecticut's former assertion that government belonged to the people.
Freedom of Information also serves as a sort of preventative measure. In an age where whistleblowers go to jail, the best defense against government incursions is to have the information out in the open to begin with. A firm precedent of disclosure and accountability will probably prevent more injustices than it will expose, and that's a good thing.
When Hillary Clinton came to campus last week, she said she was unsure why Edward Snowden felt the need to leave the US. From her ridiculous statement, it should be clear that the debate on freedom of information in the 21st century is well underway. Our generation needs to think about what's at stake when we give up liberty for security.

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