“Freedom of information.” It sounds good, no? It sounds so self-evidently right and democratic that it’s hard to imagine anyone would oppose it. Who, after all, is against freedom? Does anyone really think the public’s business should be conducted behind closed doors? There will be rare cases, yes, but they should stay rare. Extremely rare.
Just mention “victim privacy,” however, and freedom of information becomes a remarkably tough sell. That’s the context around the recent ruling by the state’s Freedom of Information Commission that the Newtown police should release recordings of the 911 calls made from Sandy Hook Elementary School, during last December’s attack, to The Associated Press.
Does that mean those recordings should become “fodder for the evening news,” as one state prosecutor put it? Of course not. But it does mean that this information shouldn’t remain forever secret. How can the public know whether an emergency was handled well or poorly if the minute-by-minute events are going to be reviewed only by insiders, meeting in secret? Or swept under the rug and not reviewed at all?
If agencies can withhold information at will, would New Yorkers have found out that their firefighters in the twin towers were hampered by malfunctioning radios on the day when 343 of them died? And how would the public learn about incidents that may have been botched, even at a cost in lives, or abuses that may have been covered up?
The sheer horror of the Sandy Hook massacre makes it very hard to argue for openness in this particular case, but the principle is still there. President James Madison warned us, a long time ago, that without information, “or the means of acquiring it,” we could be headed for “a tragedy.” The means of acquiring crucial information, in many cases, would be Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act – and an alert, responsible press.
The Associated Press made its request last year, long before the General Assembly hastily passed an ill-considered secrecy exception at the end of its last session, in June. But at least that law also created a “task force to make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the FOIA and the public’s right to know.” That panel is due to report back by Jan. 1.
This state led the nation in establishing the right of the people to know what their government is up to, way back in 1975, and this newspaper has played its part: Carter H. White, a former publisher, was a pioneer; and James H. Smith, a former executive editor, now heads the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
Unfortunately, today we have both local and state officials who are doing their level best to undermine the progress we’ve made. Both the first selectwoman and the police chief of Newtown disobeyed the law by withholding information, encouraged by a state’s attorney to use a specious argument in doing so. Other chiefs of police, boards of education and town and city executives and managers have flouted the law. And the governor wants to keep the Freedom of Information Commission under his executive heel.
In theory, the FOIC could issue fines to some of these scofflaws, but it doesn’t – because its independence is already sketchy enough, and because of the obvious danger of offending the politicians who pay the bills, or who could neuter it with the stroke of a pen.
No wonder the FOIC gets so little respect. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of our state agencies.