Since 1975 when Connecticut adopted its Freedom of Information law and was hailed as the leader in the nation for open government, state and local officials have been coming up with ways to water it down and, frankly, just going about breaking the law with impunity.
Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra is just the most recent, and she still doesn’t seem to get that breaking the FOI law is breaking the law.
When the General Assembly passed our ground-breaking statute 38 years ago, it declared that “secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know . . .”
But Llorda managed to speak out of both sides of her mouth after the state FOI Commission decided Wednesday that the Newtown police broke the law in not releasing 911 tapes of the massacre at Sandy Hook School.
“While I am certainly an advocate of the public’s right to know and support that every effort has to be made to make government transparent,” she was quoted as saying, “I don’t understand how this serves the public interest.”
Let’s start with the idea that advocating for unaccountable government censorship doesn’t help the public interest. All information is value neutral in itself. It can be used for both good and bad purposes. But government hiding information on the mere claim that it’s possible that someone might use information for bad purposes undermines the very foundation of all true democracies.
There cannot be democracy without an informed public.
Danbury States Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky is appealing the FOIC unanimous decision, saying “This is a case about crime victims and witnesses who shouldn’t have to worry that their calls for help, at their most vulnerable moments, will become fodder for the evening news.”
Well, in a democracy, that is where the information should be, on the evening news, in radio broadcasts, in the newspapers, on the Internet. That is how our citizenry is informed.
The FOI Commission found that the statute requires the release of the tapes. It also noted that the state Appellate Court ruled in 1998 that if police withhold information there must be “an evidentiary showing that the actual information sought is going to be used in a law enforcement action and that disclosure of that information would be prejudicial to that action.”
The prosecutor and police had no evidentiary showing, and with the perpetrator dead, any information cannot be prejudicial because there will be no prosecution.
Cristina Hassinger, daughter of slain Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, gets it. She said she understands why families would be reluctant to have the 911 tapes released, but “Personally . . . I’d rather have more information about what happened that day. The more information I have, the easier it is to wrap my brain around what happened.”
She is echoing our fourth president, James Madison, who wrote: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both . . . A people who mean to be their own governor, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
James H. Smith is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a former executive editor of the Record-Journal.