Journalist, SPJ official testify against bill that would close access to drivers records
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Speaking for a coalition of media interest groups, Lucy Dalglish and Richard Oppel testified against nationwide restrictions on department of motor vehicle records in early February before the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights.
Dalglish is freedom of information chairwoman for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). Oppel is Washington bureau chief of Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
The Senate in November passed the Drivers Privacy Protection Act, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), adopting it in the crime bill with no public hearing. Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) said that while the subcommittee he chairs has strong interests in protecting privacy, competing interests in open government called for careful review of the proposals as they appear in the House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).
The legislators claim that the murder of California actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stalker who found her home address through DMV records illustrates the need for greater privacy.
But the journalists cited stories based on DMV records that could not have been written had the Boxer/Moran bill been law. They emphasized that reporters have repeatedly used the records to serve important public interests, and cautioned that the measure would stop much government scrutiny but not stop stalkers, who can learn addresses from other sources.
Dalglish, a former St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press reporter, pointed to a story on unsafe, rebuilt automobile wrecks by WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, which found that a loophole in the state law allows for Minnesota “clean title” to be issued to cars that have been totaled in other states. She cited a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story showing that many Minnesota airplane pilots had alcohol- related driving offenses, a story that triggered changes in federal regulations governing pilot licenses.
Oppel cited a Miami Herald story on how drunk drivers stay on the road even after their licenses are suspended. The story showed more than 70,000 motorists were driving despite the suspensions.
He pointed to a story in the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat that named Ku Klux Klan members. Reporters checked the license plates of cars members drove to rallies where they appeared only in hooded costume. He said the Orlando Sentinel used license plates to track NASA employees for interviews away from their jobs, ultimately revealing problems that directly preceded the explosion of the Shuttle Challenger.
Oppel said neighborhood watch groups similarly use license plates to identify customers of drug dealers and prostitutes in order to rid their communities of vice.
Dalglish and Oppel testified on the behalf of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Newspaper Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Radio-Television News Directors Association and SPJ.
(H.R. 3365; S.1589)