Category Archives: Media

At Typically Genial FOI/Privacy Task Force, a Rare Burst of Frustration

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Technology, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The 17-member Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know is typically a cordial bunch, despite having strong voices at polar opposites on the issues. Garvin G. Ambrose, the state’s victim advocate, for example, evaluates victim privacy and media rights through a completely different lens than, say, James H. Smith, a former newspaper editor and now executive director of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. And Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey sits right next to Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, leading to frequent side-by-side disagreements, but also to occasional friendly banter.

But despite the normally civil tone, the task force, created in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, “can be a pressure cooker,” Smith said. And that below-the-surface tension made a rare and dramatic appearance during a marathon hearing Wednesday, when a frustrated DebraLee Hovey, a task force member and state representative from Newtown, laid into a transparency advocate who suggested that civil laws might already address the sort of harmful behavior members of the committee were looking to curtail.

Rosanna Cavanagh, a lawyer and executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told task force members that relatives of the Newtown victims had seemed to indicate through their attorney that they were primarily concerned about graphic details of the crime being misused by those on the fringe who were intent on causing pain to the families. She said those actions could run afoul of laws already on the books that punish the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

That earned a sharp rebuke from Hovey, who assailed Cavanagh’s perspective – and lawyers in general. You can view the exchange below, and watch the entire hearing on CT-N.com, the website of the Connecticut Network.

The task force was established by the legislature to “consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.” Those recommendations are due Jan. 1.

The New York Times, Accidental Gunfire, And the Value of Public Access to Death Records

by Categorized: Data, Government, Media, Transparency/FOI Date:

It certainly wasn’t their primary objective, but an intriguing Sunday story in the New York Times illustrates the value of keeping death certificates and death-certificate data available to researchers, including journalists.

The Times’ story reveals that in eight states in which reporters were able to analyze death records, most accidental shooting deaths of children were classified as something other than an accident, skewing the apparent prevalence of such deaths and in turn giving policymakers misleading data.

It’s not the result of a deliberate effort to under-report such tragedies. Instead, in states surveyed by the Times – as in Connecticut – medical examiners have a number of options for  describing the manner of an individual’s demise, including classifying a death as a homicide, suicide or accident. And in some states, any death directly caused by the actions of another, even if accidental, is classified as a homicide. Likewise, some self-inflicted deaths are classified as suicides, even if the deaths – such as those from accidental shootings – are not intentional.

In all, the Times identified more than 250 fatal shootings of children known to be accidental – the majority of which were not counted as accidents in official death records.

The same issue appears to exists in Connecticut. In 2010, for example, death-certificate data – which has been collected and analyzed by the Courant for decades – includes five individuals younger than 18 who died by gunfire. Four are known or believed to have been killed intentionally. But the fifth victim, Jamese Hudson, a 16-year-old New Haven girl, was accidentally shot in the face by a friend, police said, while the two were playing with a gun in the friend’s bedroom.

Nevertheless, Hudson’s death is listed as a “homicide” – and not included in statistics for accidental shootings.

That discrepancy has important policy implications. Most safety legislation represents a balance between inconvenience to those affected and the reduction in harm that might be realized by government-mandated behavior. But for years, lawmakers considering measures to reduce accidental shootings have engaged in that balancing act with incorrect information on one side of the scale. And groups opposing stricter gun-storage laws have cited government statistics on accidental shooting deaths – now revealed to be flawed – to argue that such fatalities are uncommon enough that they don’t justify more-intrusive laws.

That debate will continue – but it will now do so with all sides having access to more-accurate information. And it’s worth remembering that none of this would be occurring if the Times had been unable to review death records.

A public analysis of how Connecticut classifies accidental shootings would likewise be impossible without the state’s tradition of making such records available. In the past, that same data has allowed the Courant to identify deadly medical errors that hospitals failed to report to state authorities, and was a cornerstone of the paper’s recent investigation revealing scores of preventable deaths among individuals with developmental disabilities who were living in state-run or state-supervised facilities.

Prosecutors Say Order to Release 911 Tapes from Newtown Could Aid Criminals

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

State prosecutors and transparency advocates will square off next week as the state Freedom of Information Commission considers a proposed order to release tapes of 911 calls made during the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

In advance of the Sept. 25 hearing, Danbury States Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III has filed a brief saying the proposed order misinterprets state law and, if upheld, could be a boon to criminals trying to figure out what evidence investigators have collected.

Sedensky argues that the tapes are protected from disclosure by laws related to investigations of child abuse, and by exemptions to the state’s Freedom of Information Act covering records to be used in a future law-enforcement action. Kathleen K. Ross, a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Commission, rejected those arguments during a hearing in June.

The full commission typically upholds the decisions of its hearing officers, but Sedensky will have an opportunity next Wednesday to try to persuade them to reject Ross’s proposed order. Either way, the matter may not be settled for a while. Whoever loses next Wednesday can appeal the commission’s order to Superior Court.

Our full story on Sedensky’s legal brief is here. And the full document can be read below.

Download (PDF, 1.31MB)

The Best Investigative Journalism You’ll Read This Year

by Categorized: Law Enforcement, Media Date:

After an 18-month investigation, Reuters is publishing a spectacular and devastating series this week on the underground market for unwanted adopted children, exposing an informal and unregulated network in which difficult children are dumped with no oversight and no tracking – sometimes into the hands of criminals.

I dare you to read it without feeling sick and outraged.

FOI Lawyer Chastises Newtown, State Prosecutors over 911 Calls

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

As we reported in this morning’s paper, a hearing officer for the state’s Freedom of Information Commission has issued a preliminary ruling finding that Newtown police illegally withheld publicNPD Badge access to 911 calls made from inside Sandy Hook Elementary School during the Dec. 14 attack.

The hearing officer, Kathleen K. Ross, chastised Newtown for failing to evaluate whether the records were exempt from disclosure, instead deferring to state prosecutors who instructed the town not to release the tapes.

At a commission hearing in June, nearly six months after the Associated Press sought access to the tapes, Newtown and state officials argued that the recordings should not be released, citing a variety of exemptions, including a claim that releasing the tapes would prejudice a prospective law-enforcement action. Ross rejected all of those assertions, setting up a Sept. 25 hearing at which the full commission will decide whether to adopt Ross’s report.

Lawyers for the state Division of Criminal Justice will be back at the commission’s offices, making the case for why the tapes should not be released. And even if the commission upholds the hearing officer’s report – as they usually do – the state could appeal that decision to Superior Court, a step that would add months if not years to the resolution of the matter.

The full hearing officer’s report appears below.

Download (PDF, 515KB)

You Want Those Public Records? That’ll Be $16 Million Please.

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Media, Non-profits, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

When reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought access to public records about tax-lien sales that were costing residents of Fulton County millions of dollars, officials said the newspaper could have the data – for a fee.

That fee? $16.2 million.

It was the latest in a string of roadblocks county officials had erected in hopes of avoiding scrutiny of the costly deals, and it persisted until the state attorney general threatened to join the newspaper in suing the county pols.

That snubbing of Georgia’s freedom-of-information laws earned Fulton County a finalist spot – but not the grand prize – in the inaugural “Golden Padlock” award from the journalism group Investigative Reporters and Editors. The partly tongue-in-cheek award is given in recognition of “unrelenting commitment to undermining the public’s right to know.”

As bad as the county tax commissioner’s actions were deemed to be, IRE gave the top prize to the U.S. Border Patrol for what it called stonewalling by the federal agency in response to requests for information about deadly shootings by agents.  “The U.S. Border Patrol’s resounding silence on fatal shootings involving its agents epitomizes the kind of intransigence for which this award was created,” IRE president David Cay Johnston said in a press release.

Three other agencies earned finalist spots:

    • JobsOhio, a non-profit economic development agency that replaced the Ohio Department of Development, and which was made exempt from most public-records laws despite being established with public money and having access to a huge pool of assets from the state’s control of liquor profits.
    • New Jersey Transit, which responded to a request for the agency’s hurricane preparedness plan by providing a document entirely blacked out except for the title.
    • The Centers for Disease Control, for its slow response to requests for information on Lyme Disease, including one case in which a requester was made to wait more than five years for records.

The reporters’ group also inducted the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder into its “Hall of Shame” for what it called the “Orwellian practice of monitoring journalists’ phone records in pursuit of whistleblowers.”

In the Newtown Clerk’s Office, a Dishonorable End to Six Months of Lawlessness

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

If you were a government official, how far would you go to push back against a law you disagreed with?

Would you openly defy the law?

Would you be willing to violate your oath of office?

Would you go so far as to badger those who favored enforcement of the law?

Until today, those questions earned a shameful “yes” in the Newtown clerk’s office, where officials for six months illegally withheld access to death certificates after deciding their personal sense of right and wrong trumped the statutory demands of their office.

This morning, the clerks finally relented, turning over dozens of heartbreaking photocopies bearing witness to the sad duty of doctors in the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office to apply, over and over, a clinical description to the violence that stole so many innocent lives.

As I write this, a reporter is driving back from Newtown with the documents. When they arrive, they’ll be somberly analyzed for anything that might improve our understanding of that awful day – though it’s not likely the sparse documents will do much to peel back the mystery. We will wince at the now-familiar names, and think of the parents that we have come to know, but don’t really know. We’ll do our best to avoid flashes of the terror inside that school. And then the documents will be filed, along with hundreds or thousands of other sheets of paper amassed in our investigation and coverage of this obviously important, internationally significant story. [Update: Courant editors tell me that, following a review of the death certificates, no story will be written based on their content.]

That is what we will do with the records. And the town should have given them to us as soon as we asked last December. Continue reading

From 42 Years Ago, A Supreme Court Justice’s Take on Secrecy, Leaks and National Security

by Categorized: First Amendment, Media, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

As the media swirls with stories of government eavesdropping and CIA leaks and national security worries, it’s instructive to recall this is hardly the first time the nation has sought to balance the public’s right to know against their government’s desire for secrecy.

In 1971, a divided U.S. Supreme Court decided the “Pentagon Papers” case, ruling that the government could not prevent newspapers from publishing stolen and leaked classified documents that revealed a pattern of official deception during the Vietnam War. Then, as now, there were concerns over the independence of the press, the trustworthiness of the Executive branch and the duty to preserve national security.

All nine justices penned individual opinions. Hugo Black, the court’s strongest First Amendment advocate, offered up a passionate defense of baring the government’s secrets, as a means of providing what he saw as true security for the nation’s bedrock values. Below are excerpts from his concurring opinion in that landmark case.

 

“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. … In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

“The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged.”

Society of Professional Journalists Blasts Newtown Secrecy Bill

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

The Society of Professional Journalists has stepped into the debate over concealing portions of the investigative report into the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, sending a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy denouncing a secretly drafted bill that would block public access to crime-scene photographs, 911 recordings and death certificates related to the massacre.

“The Society condemns the creation of this legislation outside the normal, transparent process of public hearings and debate. And we deplore the attempt to use the tragic events of Dec. 14 as an excuse to close off access to records that are otherwise available to the public,” SPJ President Sonny Albarado and Connecticut chapter President Jodie Mozdzer Gil wrote to Malloy.

The legislation was drafted out of concern for relatives of those killed at the school, who might be traumatized by widespread distribution of grisly images if crime-scene photographs were released. Transparency advocates, however, have bristled at the breadth of the proposed bill.

“This legislation does not honor the victims of the Newtown shooting, and the tragedy should not be used as an excuse to close access to public documents, the release of which does not change the circumstances surrounding the Newtown massacre,” the letter states. “In fact, their release could debunk conspiracy theories  and provide lessons worth learning.”

The legislature could vote on the bill this week, though Albarado and Mozdzer Gill are asking for a delay until public hearings can be held.

The full text of their letter is below.

Download (PDF, 199KB)

‘Conspiracy Nuts’ Relish Sandy Hook Secrecy Bill

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

It surely wasn’t their intention – and it’s clear they really don’t care what those on the fringe think – but a new bill developed by top state officials that would shield parts of the Sandy Hook investigation is proving to be a big hit with conspiracy theorists.

“The conspiracy nuts are going to love this,” a colleague had predicted the night details of the bill surfaced.

He was right. The legislation – drafted in secret and promoting secrecy – has unintentionally tickled the minds of those who feel buoyed by believing they’re in the know about some spectacularly massive government cover-up.

“In my estimation,” wrote a commenter on The New American website, “what they are trying to hide is that what happened at Sandy Hook (as well as at the shooting at the Batman movie not long before that) was a False Flag perpetuated by this administration for the purpose of furthering their on-going attacks upon our Constitutional freedoms and nothing less!!”

On the Courant’s site, a poster from Toronto asked: “Since when in the history of the world do they not publish a DEATH CERTIFICATE? I’ll tell you when… When the death certificate DOES NOT EXIST!”

And on infowars.com, the granddaddy of conspiracy sites, hundreds of comments have been posted in response to the legislation, with many posters knowingly shaking their heads at the obviousness of it all.

“Nice how criminals get to cover up their own crimes and tracks,” one wrote. “Fortunately internet investigators have enough proof of what may have happened that day. One thing is certain: everything around Sandy Hook is a lie, a cover-up or a deception.”

Proponents of the legislation say they merely want to spare the relatives of  those killed at Sandy Hook the trauma that could come from having crime-scene photographs or other grisly details widely released. While typical media outlets refrain from publishing particularly disturbing images, proponents fear that the extraordinarily high profile of the Dec. 14 rampage would attract interest from others who would be willing to splash the images on the Internet.

As drafted, however, the bill goes beyond shielding images, and includes 911 recordings, police transmissions that describe the victims, and the death certificates issued for the 20 students and six educators killed at the school. The bill does not protect images or other records related to shooter Adam Lanza, who fatally shot himself in the school, or his mother, whom he also killed.

Transparency advocates have roundly criticized the proposal, particularly its extension to 911 recordings, which are often used to gauge law-enforcement response. The bill includes a provision for transcripts of such calls, though it is not clear if those transcripts could accurately reflect the tone and timing of the communications. Others question the fairness of legislation aimed at protecting the Sandy Hook families, but not the grieving relatives of other homicide victims.

Lawmakers are debating those points, and the bill might be amended if and when it comes up for a vote. In the meantime, those on the edge are relishing the fresh fodder.

“We already know they lied about assault rifles being used. That’s a proven fact,” one Huffington Post commenter confidently declared. “What are they covering up now?”