Some lawmakers are expressing concerns about a Freedom of Information bill that has been crafted in secret regarding the shootings last year at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Top legislators say they are trying to strike a delicate balance between the public’s right to know and the privacy concerns expressed by the families of the victims of the massacre.
Even before the formal debate, the bill was raising concerns Wednesday.
“We’re troubled to learn that exceptions to open government are being drafted and planned in secret,” said Sandra Staub, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “Regardless of the merits, if any, of the legislative proposal, there’s no excuse for creating new open records exemptions without a full public hearing. Good public policy is not made in the dark. That’s why we have freedom of information laws in the first place.”
Insiders said the original bill had much more sweeping provisions that would have blocked more information. The latest version, which is still a draft, is designed to block various pieces of information, including allowing the deletion of the names of children who were named as witnesses in the police reports so that they would not be questioned about it years later by reporters or others. The names of adult witnesses would remain open to the public.
The measure would also block pictures, videotapes and audiotapes of the crime scene, including statements by police over police radios. Various 911 calls, such as those saying that help was needed at the school, would be available through transcripts under the bill, insiders said.
The Newtown town clerk has sought to avoid releasing death certificates, which have been available to the general public for decades in every town in the state. Instead, anyone seeking a death certificate from the Newtown tragedy would be directed to the state health department to obtain the information.
“What we’re trying to do is recognize that the victims of Newtown have undergone a tremendous trauma,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey said in an interview. “In this unique situation, there is a sense that we should try to protect the families of the victims by limiting access to certain sensitive materials from the crime scene.”
“We’ve developed this in response to requests from the elected representatives of the victims,” Sharkey said. “It started with the town clerk’s refusal to issue the death certificates, but the conversation about what to do expanded into the question of the other particularly sensitive and horrific photos and materials that came from the crime scene.”
“This is unique, and I think that most people in Connecticut recognize that this is something that strikes very deeply in the hearts of everyone in this state,” Sharkey said. “We, first and foremost, need to protect these families, recognizing this is a completely unique set of circumstances.”
Rank-and-file lawmakers had not seen a final version of the bill, but they were concerned about its contents. Rep. Steven Mikutel, a veteran Democrat, questioned how Newtown can be treated differently than other horrific crimes.
“I don’t know how you separate Newtown from the other incidents,” said Mikutel. “I don’t think we should be doing a piece of legislation that just covers Newtown. … On the 911 tapes, I think that’s a bit of an overreach. They give them out to the media. I’m comfortable with releasing that, and that should not be part of the bill. I think this is a overreaction to protect 911 tapes. Let the truth come out on the 911 tapes.”
Mikutel, one of the longest-serving House members with 20 years of experience, said that lawmakers were forced to vote on the gun-control package this year without knowing the full details of the crimes by shooter Adam Lanza. For example, he said, legislators did not know whether Lanza had any alcohol or drugs in his system at the time that they voted on the gun-control bill. Recently, after the vote, The Hartford Courant disclosed that an autopsy showed that Lanza had no alcohol or drugs in his system.
“We didn’t know until afterward whether this shooter was on drugs. That’s disturbing to me,” Mikutel said Wednesday. “I find that disturbing as a legislator to vote on that gun bill without knowing all the facts of that case.”
Concerning Newtown, Mikutel said, “The veil of secrecy needs to be lifted in some respects on this whole case. … There’s been a whole veil of secrecy on Newtown from beginning to end. I think it’s been overdone.”
Mikutel said he was not concerned that any daily newspapers would publish horrific crime scene photographs because they have not done that routinely in the past. But in an age of Facebook and Twitter, he said he was concerned that gruesome photographs could be spread across the Internet.
“When a person is brutally murdered, you don’t see those released,” Mikutel said of the traditional media. “You don’t see people’s heads cut off.”
After the Boston Marathon, for example, many newspapers did not publish the most gruesome photographs that were captured by photographers within a minute of the bombings and before any medical personnel arrived.
“I don’t worry about the newspapers publishing these pictures at all,” Mikutel said. “I’m worried about the professional hackers, the cranks, the gadflies, and the crackpots. I’m not afraid of the media.”
State Rep. Stephen Dargan, a veteran Democrat who has served for the past 20 years as the co-chairman of the legislature’s public safety committee, said that legislators routinely struggle over what information should be disclosed.
“Every year we are here, we grapple with what should be FOI-able and what isn’t,” Dargan said. “Some people will argue that the legislature will do things that are inconsistent. Even though a lot of people don’t like elected officials, we should act in a way that’s most open. … We’re just so inconsistent about FOI, and that’s the problem. We should just let everything be disclosed.”
State Rep. John Hampton, a Simsbury Democrat, said he was concerned about the bill because it would involve limiting information about the Newtown crime.
“As an elected official, transparency is critical to the process,” said Hampton, a freshman lawmaker. “We work for the people, and their access to information is so important. It’s fundamental, and I don’t think I could be supportive of that.”