Connecticut passes law restricting access to Newtown shooting, other police records

Amy Zhang | Freedom of Information | News | June 7, 2013

Reporters covering homicides in Connecticut won't have access to investigation photographs and 911 recordings describing victim conditions under a new law prompted by families of Newtown shooting victims and signed by the governor this week.

The law, which becomes effective immediately, allows government agencies to restrict access to photos, film or digital video images “depicting the victim of a homicide." Recordings of 911 calls describing the "condition of a victim" can also be withheld.

The amendment to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act includes the formation of a task force that "provides guidance" to government agencies and courts to determine what records should be released.

But the new law makes it more difficult for journalists covering high-profile events like Sandy Hook to get images and recordings collected during police investigations. In passing the law, policymakers hoped to shield victims' family members from harmful publication of gruesome investigation photos .

"My goal with this legislation was to provide some measure of protection for the families affected by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement.

Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state's Freedom of Information Commission, which hears appeals regarding denied records, said the law breaks new ground for Connecticut.

Essentially, Murphy said, the law shifts the burden of proof away from government agencies by requiring requesters of information to establish that disclosure is warranted. Under the old state statute, government agencies were required to prove that requested records were not newsworthy and were highly offensive.

Under the new law, the burden falls on petitioners to show that public interest outweighs the privacy harm to the victim's families. David Cuillier, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the law was a government overstep all the same.

"What they're doing here is protecting the family ... but it becomes a slippery slope," Cuillier said. "Anything that makes someone uncomfortable, the government can make secret."