Prompted by the Newtown tragedy, the town’s clerk and two Republican state legislators are now pushing a bill that would restrict access to death certificates for children under the age of 18.
State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, a freshman lawmaker who represents Newtown, testified to a committee Wednesday that legislators “need to do something’’ because reporters have sought the death certficates – which have traditionally been public records for many years – of the 20 children who were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School by shooter Adam Lanza.
“I was shocked, dismayed and deeply disturbed when, on Dec. 17, I got a call from the town clerk about the prospect of having a reporter standing beside her during one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the United States in Newtown looking for death certificates of children,’’ Bolinsky said.
Bolinsky said he felt “the outrage, the pain of observing the jackals descend upon my town clerk’s office at a time of great, great community loss.’’ He added, “Whatever we need to do, we need to do something.’’
Bolinsky’s one-paragraph bill states that the copy of the public record could be restricted “when the disclosure of the death certificate is likely to cause undue hardship for the family of the child.’’
But Jim Smith, a veteran journalist who serves as president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said his group will fight against the bill in its continuing advocacy for open government. The certificate, he said, is a straightforward, factual document that lacks the details of an autopsy report.
“There isn’t anything in a death certificate that is going to hurt the deceased,’’ Smith said Wednesday at the state Capitol complex. “It’s not like an autopsy report. It’s been public for centuries. It’s not going to invade anyone’s privacy.’’
Smith added, “We understand people, especially in Newtown, are aggrieved, but it shouldn’t lead to shutting off information in a democracy. There’s no real reason to do it. If a kid dies, we ought to know why. We shouldn’t be hiding why kids die.’’
But Bolinsky, along with state Rep. Dan Carter and Newtown town clerk Debbie A. Aurelia, had a differing view in testifying for the bill – known as House Bill 5733 – in front of the legislature’s Democratic-controlled public health committee. Aurelia said she would like the bill amended to restrict access to all death certificates.
“The media has repeatedly contacted my office asking for all death certificates,” Aurelia said. “They want to know where they are buried and how they died.” Aurelia added that she would like access to the certificates limited to immediate family and authorized agencies and individuals such as funeral home owners, doctors and attorneys.
The three officials said that certain details on the certificates – the mother’s maiden name of the deceased, for instance – could be used for identity theft.
Besides restricting access completely, Carter said one option is to allow the public access to a shorter version of the death certificate, with fewer personal details. The media and community agencies often want access to the death certificates of minors, he said, “because it’s very unlikely that a minor is dying of natural causes.”
“I understand that part of the issue, and we may be able to give access to some of that [information] through the medical examiner’s office,” he said.
Carter, a Republican who represents a portion of Newtown, also has sponsored a separate measure, House Bill 5421, that would exempt the certificates from disclosure for 10 years after the child’s death.
The Newtown tragedy has prompted another Freedom of Information bill, which is designed to ensure that the names and addresses of gun permit holders should be public. Based on a compromise when the assault weapons ban was approved in 1994, the previously public records on permit holders are now closed to the public. State Rep. Stephen Dargan, a veteran West Haven Democrat, called for those records to become public once again, and his home telephone message machine has been flooded with messages against the idea.
“We believe gun permits should be a public document, and they were for a long time,’’ Smith said. “I never saw the word ‘secret’ in the Second Amendment. If we cannot know who owns guns, that’s a secrecy that doesn’t serve an open society.’’
He added, “Do I know if my kids or grandkids are going to a house with guns? It’s a safety issue. Citizens ought to know who has guns.’’