Local FOI advocates remain alert for threats to access The United States may be a nation of laws, not of men (or “of people,” to be more precise), but when laws regarding public access to government are violated, ignored or forgotten, it’s up to people to take action, whether as individuals or as organizations. So a few words today about the human factor in FOI. • The first involves a team effort. In Kansas, The Wichita Eagle and CBS television affiliate KWCH have been fighting to see records regarding murder charges against brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr. The two men were charged with kidnapping and shooting five people last December. Four of those victims died, as did a woman the Carrs allegedly shot in a separate incident that same month. And as if the murders themselves were not bizarre enough, the story also involves questions regarding negligence among emergency personnel, namely that one victim lay alive in the snow for hours before being taken to the hospital. The Eagle and KWCH asked to see records involving the case and the emergency response. What they got instead was a district attorney’s motion to seal every record they requested. When Sedgwick County District Judge Clark Owens granted the motion, the media went to a higher authority – the Kansas Supreme Court. SPJ joined in that battle, signing onto a brief prepared by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The Kansas Association of Broadcasters, the Kansas Press Association and the Radio-Television News Directors Association also joined the effort. In June, the high court ruled that the media organizations may intervene in the case, challenge the seal and continue their pursuit of the records. The ruling was a narrow one, and we shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet, but the justices at least kept the door to the courthouse open so that First Amendment and public-interest arguments might be heard. • Sometimes, one individual can sound an alarm and remind us of the value of the proverbial ounce of prevention. In June, SPJ’s Project Sunshine Chair for Connecticut, Stephanie Reitz of the Hartford Courant, sent out an advisory on a potential new threat lurking behind our old nemesis, the Drivers Privacy Protection Act. (It also shows her passion for the issue, as expressed in capital letters.) Stephanie had tried to check a story fact on deadline by using a municipal “grand list” for motor vehicle taxation in her town’s assessor’s office. Such lists are considered public records in Connecticut. She was quite surprised when the assessor turned down her request to see the information. She writes: “Their rationale is that since these motor vehicle lists come from the state Department of Motor Vehicles (and since DMV is bound by the Drivers Privacy Protection Act when it comes to certain other information), the information is now closed. That is WRONG.” Although there is an active case in the Connecticut courts regarding the lists, she notes “the law of the land as it stands right now is that those records are OPEN, OPEN, OPEN.” As things turned out, the assessor subsequently reviewed the law and decided Stephanie was right after all. Meanwhile, to help head off similar problems, Stephanie has been circulating rulings by Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission and a state court that clearly identify “grand lists” as public records. It’s best, she said, to have the argument for openness in your pocket when you walk in the door. If you are interested in Stephanie’s experience or in how Connecticut handles motor vehicle taxation records in light of the DPPA, you can contact her at the Courant’s Avon, Conn., office at 860/284-7316 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. • Speaking of our “Project Sunshine” network, let me say farewell to a couple of comrades and welcome a new member of the team. In California, Northern co-chair Rachel Boehm of San Francisco has handed the reins to another Bay Area lawyer, Nicole Dogwill of the firm of Gray, Cary, Ware and Freidenrich in Palo Alto. Randy Lyman of Oakland will continue as our other Northern California co-chair. Dan Weikel continues to hold down the fort in Southern California from his post at the Los Angeles Times. In New Jersey, we say goodbye to Shannon Martin of Rutgers University, who is heading north to the University of Maine, where she plans to remain active in FOI issues. By the time you read this, we hope to have a new Sunshine Chair in place in the Garden State. • Finally, check out the new 50-state FOI resource created by the Eugene, Ore., law firm of Bahr & Stotter. Earlier this year, the firm launched foiadvocates.com, a Web site featuring links to federal agencies and state access laws in all 50 states. The site also offers help in FOIA filings, requests for fee waivers and litigation. To view the site or offer comments, visit: http://www.foiadvocates.com You also can contact David Bahr at 541/686-3277. Go team! Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.
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