From the Summer 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 46.
Each summer, the Reporters Committee surveys state legislation that could affect the First Amendment and Freedom of Information interests of the news media. The following bills are among those introduced that could inhibit, or in some cases enhance, journalists’ abilities to gather and cover the news.
A bill that would have replaced the state’s 89-year-old open meetings law died in the legislature.
The bill would have applied to governmental board meetings with some exceptions: meetings in which officials discussed the “good name and character of an individual;” pending litigation; security plans; discussions of alleged criminal conduct against an individual; discussions of some real estate transactions; and financial matters in which the entity is competing with other entities.
Violations would have resulted in fines of up to $1,000 plus attorney’s fees to be paid by the official(s) in violation, not the agency. Under current law, violations are misdemeanors that carry a maximum fine of $500. No one has ever been prosecuted under the law.
The bill would have voided state Supreme Court decisions that held the open meetings law did not apply to public corporations, and that meetings could be closed if a quorum was not present. (HB 536)
Effective July 1, majority and minority caucuses are free to conduct closed-door meetings under a bill signed into law by Gov. Frank Murkowski. (HB 563)
The House passed a bill barring release of photos of law enforcement officers by state and local agencies unless the officer consents, has been arrested or charged with a crime, or the agency determines there is no reasonable chance of harm to the officer or the officer’s family. (HB 2383)
A new law requires home association boards to open their meetings and financial records to any association member, although some records can be declared private under specific guidelines. (HB 2177)
Another new law requires the custodian of public records to furnish an index of all records withheld from an FOI Act request. (SB 1269)
The Arizona Press Association lobbied for better provisions in a bill setting procedures for classifying and disclosing confidential information currently required to be submitted to governmental agencies by the petroleum industry. It was passed as an aggregate bill and did not require the governor’s signature. (SB1275) Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed a second bill that would have set reporting requirements for petroleum-based motor fuel producers, sellers and pipeline transporters operating in the state. (HB 2615)
In July, the press association was drafting legislation for next year’s session that would designate an attorney in the attorney general’s office to handle cases in which public records have been denied, executive director John Fearing said.
The Arkansas legislature meets biannually and will not reconvene until 2005. C. Dennis Schick of the Arkansas Press Association said legislation will likely be introduced next year to close discussions concerning the purchasing of property by public entities to avoid outside interest and competition for the property. Schick said his association would oppose such legislation.
The state legislature approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing public access to government meetings and records. The measure will be voted on in a statewide referendum in November.
The amendment would bolster California’s open records and meetings laws and reverse legal precedents that now place the burden on the requestor to prove a right of access. If approved, the amendment would shift the burden to the government to prove why documents and meetings must not be disclosed.
The state law, as currently written, has no effective mechanism for the public to appeal illegal acts to block access. If the amendment passes, California would become one of only a handful of states with detailed open government language in its constitution. A constitutional amendment must be approved by two-thirds majorities in the state Senate and Assembly (but does not require the governor’s signature) and a majority of the voting public. (SCA 1)
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that seeks to increase public security by shielding information about the government’s efforts to combat security threats. The bill exempted the following from public disclosure: vulnerability assessments that identify potential targets of terrorist attacks; plans for how public agencies will “mitigate the potential of terrorist or other criminal attacks”; and any information related to facility security that “could be used to aid a potential terrorist or other criminal attack.” (AB 1209)
After first introducing a bill that would have closed autopsy records from public inspection, legislators amended it to make clear that access to autopsy reports is still required under the Public Records Act. However, the bill requires a coroner to notify the deceased’s next of kin when releasing information. (AB 2521)
The Senate is considering a bill to grant journalists increased access to prison inmates by allowing them to schedule prearranged interviews with inmates and allowing them to use reporting “tools” during an interview. Notebooks, tape recorders and cameras are currently banned. (SB 1164)
The governor signed a bill allowing parties to divorce or annulment actions to seal records that identify a party’s financial assets or liabilities. (AB 782) However, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected a measure that would have required court files in divorce or annulment proceedings to be sealed upon the request of any party if the file contained, among other things, private information or information that could facilitate the misuse of a party’s identity. (SB 239)
Another bill would establish a presumption of openness for California’s juvenile dependency courts, unless the courts find that admitting the public into the proceedings would cause severe harm to the child. (AB 2627)
A bill that was defeated would have repealed the Legislative Open Records Act, making the legislature subject only to the Public Records Act. The PRA currently exempts both the legislature and the courts from most requirements. (AB 2714)
Legislators are considering a bill requiring the district attorney and the courts, in consultation with county and municipal law enforcement agencies, to establish a mutually agreeable procedure to protect “confidential personal information” regarding any witness or victim contained in a police report, arrest report or investigative report that is submitted to a court in support of a criminal complaint, indictment, information or a search or arrest warrant. (SB 58)
Another pending bill would give local and statewide government bodies the ability to hold closed sessions to discuss their reaction to the State Bureau of Audits’ final report. State bodies that meet to discuss the report must currently do so in an open session. (AB 1827)
In response to fears over identity theft, Gov. Bill Owens signed into law a bill closing any public record that contains a Social Security number. (HB 1311)
Owens also signed a bill allowing people to request that all information in their arrest and criminal records, except basic identification information, be sealed. Only records chronicling charges that were dismissed due to a plea bargain are eligible. (HB 1376)
Four other bills relating to access to information were defeated. They include: prohibiting the establishment of a statewide database of conceal-carry weapons permits (HB 1205); requiring negotiations between school boards and employees to be open to the public (HB 1242); removing names of public employees from county publications when associated with their salary information (HB 1099); and restricting public access to information on people required to register as sex offenders by only allowing the information to be released for reasons of public protection. (HB 1196)
The legislature enacted a measure to block the Freedom of Information Commission from requiring governmental voice mail to be maintained as public records. (SB584) The commission had issued a draft ruling stating that voice mail and e-mail communications relating to the conduct of the public’s business are public records under the Freedom of Information Act. The commission never issued a final ruling.
A bill requiring the public release of autopsy records of people who died in police custody failed. (HB 5542) Dick King, executive director of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, said that measure will be on next year’s agenda.
Another pending bill would open state juvenile court hearings on child abuse and neglect, or any case in which the state seeks to terminate parental rights. Hearings involving juvenile delinquency, truancy and runaways would remain closed. Juvenile court records would also remain sealed for privacy concerns. The bill would allow judges to bar people from a hearing for compelling reasons, or if they believe the individual’s presence would inhibit testimony. (HB 5555)
Gov. Ruth Ann Minner signed a bill limiting public access to Delaware’s criminal justice database. The measure protects the names of police officers, but assigns each a permanent random number that can be tracked for computer analysis. (HB 319) The new law allows information on location of arrests and police actions that did not result in convictions to be public. Officers’ names will still be available in relevant arrest and court documents.
The bill was a compromise between The (Wilmington) News Journal and state officials after a six-year-long legal battle over access to the criminal justice database. State legislators introduced the bill after the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that the officers’ identities could not be protected under the Freedom of Information Act.
In March, the Senate passed a bill to extend whistle-blower protection to private-sector employees; such protections are already available to government workers. (SB 173) The bill is awaiting action in the House, and applies to all part-time and full-time workers, including independent contractors.
The bill would protect any worker from being fired, threatened or discriminated against for reporting that a violation of a state or federal law had occurred or is about to occur.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
The Government Operations Committee of the City Council voted down four bills to change the District’s Freedom of Information Act. The committee passed a substitute bill by Council member Kathy Patterson that eliminated several proposals that could have undermined openness, including provisions that would have made exemptions more similar to those of the federal FOI Act.
The substitute bill clarifies that the law enforcement exemption to the FOI Act applies to City Council investigations, as does the inter-agency memorandum exemption; that the Council may assert exemptions on behalf of public bodies; and that final decisions of the Council may not be appealed to the mayor. (Substitute to Bill 14-483)
The original bill would have broadened existing exemptions and protected the identity of whistle blowers even if their identity had already been revealed. (Bill 15-483) A second bill would have extended the definition of “public body” to cover the City Council. (Bill 15-668) A third bill would have doubled the current time limit the government has to respond to an open records requests to 20 working days. It also would have set a 30-day time limit for filing a lawsuit after unsuccessful administrative appeals.(Bill 15-818) Finally, a fourth bill would have eliminated the current $10 cap on records search fees. Patterson had amended it to make public interest fee waivers mandatory. (Bill 15-822)
Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law two bills that weaken the state’s public records law. One exempts from public records the Social Security numbers of all government employees and personal identifying information of U.S. attorneys and federal judges. (SB 348) A second law exempts some information in patient-safety data records, including medical “near misses” – when doctors come close to making mistakes, such as nearly operating on the wrong leg. (SB 702)
To help bring the Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County, legislators passed a bill that requires little oversight of how the $310 million in federal economic stimulus funds used to lure Scripps would be spent. (SB 8E) In a special session last fall, legislators granted the institute an exemption from the state’s Sunshine law, which means no right of access to funding proposals.
Bush signed a bill into law that allows the Department of Financial Services to withhold public access to unclaimed property records for up to 90 days. (SB 2994)
Bush also signed a bill that bans the keeping of records on gun owners and guns, including lists of firearms bought and sold at pawnshops. Government agencies creating such lists faced up to $5 million in fines. Exemptions include recording guns used in crimes, stolen firearms and transaction records required under state law, among others. (HB 155)
Legislators will find it more difficult to pass new exemptions to state public record and Sunshine laws under a 2003 amendment to the Florida Constitution. Article I, Section 24 — the right of access to information — was amended to require a two-thirds majority approval in each chamber for any exemption to open records laws.
The Georgia legislature enacted three measures during the 2004 session that shielded records from the public. One will require keeping private the records of addresses and phone numbers of employees of the state’s Department of Revenue. (HB 1437) A second closes records of recreation programs that identify children under 12 years old. (HB 1358) Records of farm water use will also be private under a measure closing records of water use procedures and monitoring. (SB 436)
The legislature rejected a bill that would have granted an open records exemption to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, a state-funded agency. The Hall of Fame had sought to hold meetings and votes on nominees for induction in secret. (HB 1638)
A bill that would have allowed the state Office of Information Practices to restrict public disclosure to someone declared a “vexatious requester” was rejected by the House after conference committee revisions. The bill would have allowed the office to restrict a person’s requests for certain government records for two years if the person has a pattern of abusing the state’s open records laws. (SB 3185)
Gov. Linda Lingle signed a law that allows child welfare hearings to be open to the public if the Family Court judge determines that doing so would be in the best interest of the child. (HB 1980) The bill also allows parents to bring a non-lawyer advocate to hearings, unless a judge decides that would not be in the child’s best interest.
A new amendment to the state public disclosure law exempts worker compensation records maintained by the industrial commission, but permits “quoting or discussing” medical or rehabilitation records during a compensation hearing or in a written decision issued by the commission. The parties’ can be identified in any written decision released to the public by the commission. (SB 1441)
The Idaho Press Club asked a state judge in May to prohibit the legislature from closing formal committee meetings to the public. The lawsuit addressed seven instances in which House and Senate committees closed meetings to the media and general public. Two of the meetings were briefings on water rights negotiations for which a district court had ordered a gag order. Both parties told The Associated Press that the issue will most likely be resolved by the state Supreme Court.
People whose FOI Act requests are denied would have only 60 days to file a lawsuit on the matter under a bill the Illinois Press Association is urging Gov. Rod Blagojevich to veto. (HB 956)
Public bodies must now make audio or video recordings of all closed sessions, whether confidential or not, under a measure effective January 2004. (SB 1586) A related measure, which went into effect last year, allows for public entities to close meetings to consider appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of their legal counsel. (SB 1204)
Under a new law, public officials must release state records of children who die of abuse or neglect. The covered records are held by the Family and Social Services Administration, as well as state and county child fatality review committees. (HEA 1194)
Another new law makes certain election records that had previously been sealed or destroyed after elections publicly available. The public is now allowed to inspect records such as poll books and absentee ballot envelopes after the recount period has passed. (SEA 72)
Both houses passed a bill establishing the formation of an interim legislative committee to revise current state open records and meetings laws to comply with changes in the telecommunications and digital information industries. (SCR 36)
The legislature rejected a bill that would have allowed public bodies to hold private discussions regarding economic development projects. (HF 2196) A second failed measure would have made all records relating to newly elected public officials unavailable to the public between the time of election and the time the officers took office. (HF 574)
Legislators rejected a bill that would have clarified which legislative groups were subject to the state’s open meetings laws. The bill would have required meetings of either house of the legislature, standing committees of either house or joint conference committees to be subject to the open meetings law. (HF 2125)
Under a new law, the public can obtain records of donations to public agencies “if the donation is intended for or restricted to providing” payment or personal benefits “to a named public officer or employee.” Previously, the records were confidential if the donor requested anonymity.
The new law also awards attorney’s fees to litigants who were wrongfully denied public records.
The amendments, signed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on May 17, also require government agencies to release documents relating to the “character and qualifications” of any person appointed to fill a vacancy in an elected position. Those records were not previously open.
All existing exceptions to the Open Records Act are under review. The more than 360 exceptions are scheduled to expire in July 2005 unless the legislature reenacts them.
Citing time constraints for proper debate on the floor, the House refused to consider legislation passed by the Senate that would exempt university donation records from the state Open Records Act unless contributors authorized disclosure. The bill sought to create a special exemption in the open records law in concealing the names of donors to universities, museums and other public entities. The bill would have also created “homeland security” exemptions for records that if released would create a “reasonable likelihood” of threatening public safety by exposing vulnerability. (HB 188)
A bill requiring city and county offices, boards, agencies and commissions to sign acknowledgment letters affirming having read pending and passed revisions of open meetings and open records laws passed the House, but died in the Senate. The measure was intended to educate elected officials throughout the state on the passage of continuous legislation governing the flow of information to the public. (HB 263)
Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco signed into law July 5 a bill that will keep negotiations regarding economic development private until the negotiations are completed. (SB 579)
Certain public higher education officials who receive payments totaling more than $1,000 must receive approval from their board for those payments, and the documents relating to that approval are now public under a bill signed by the governor. (SB 730)
The Maine Press Association calls a new public access law the “broadest package of public access reforms in the 45-year history of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.”
The new law adds a review process for exceptions to public disclosure, according to Judy Meyer, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. Exceptions fall under the Freedom of Access Act’s exemption for records designated confidential by another statute.
Meyer, editorial page editor of the Lewiston Sun-Journal, served on a 16-person committee charged with studying compliance with the state’s Freedom of Access laws.
The new law set out nine criteria to evaluate exceptions annually. It also requires agencies to weigh the need to invoke an exception against the public’s interest in records. Agencies must also now respond to requests within a “reasonable” time and at a “reasonable” cost. Agencies may still charge the actual cost of searching for and compiling requested documents, but the charge cannot exceed $10 per hour after the first hour of staff time.
Despite nearly unanimous approval of a bill by both chambers of the legislature, Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. vetoed a measure that would have significantly expanded the right to sue under the state’s Open Meetings Act. The bill would have revised the act to give “any person” standing to file a lawsuit, as opposed to only people “adversely affected,” defined as those losing income or property value from a violation of the act. (SB 87) In his veto message, the governor said the bill could result in an increase in frivolous litigation and accompanying legal costs for government bodies.
The bill passed the legislature with little opposition from local governments officials who potentially stand to receive the brunt of open meeting lawsuits. The state attorney general’s office also supported the bill and said the cost of defending such suits would be minimal. Lawmakers can overturn the governor’s veto at their next scheduled legislative session, scheduled for January. A three-fifths vote by each chamber is required to override a veto.
The governor signed a bill expanding the definition of “public body” in the Open Meetings Act to include boards, commissions and committees appointed by an official subject to the direction of the governor or chief executive of a political subdivision. The bill requires a public body to submit specific materials to the Open Meetings Compliance Board upon request, and to keep a copy of the advance notice of a session and written statements regarding the reason for closing a session, minutes or tape reco rdings for at least one year after a session. (SB 111)
In a bill opposed by the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, legislators enacted a bill amending the Public Information Act to exempt personally identifiable information about those who maintain an alarm or security system at their home or office. (SB 377)
A state treasury proposal in House and Senate budget plans for 2005 would require that some information related to state pension fund investments be kept secret, the Boston Business Journal reported in May. The measure would exempt from the state public meetings law the pension fund board meetings in which such data is discussed.
The Michigan Press Association has been strongly lobbying against a bill that would exempt from the Freedom of Information Act statements made by police officers in internal investigations, unless the statements are either subpoenaed by a court or the individual has given written consent. The bill, passed by the House, was under review in the Senate Judiciary Committee as of late July. (HB 5394)
Public employees who knowingly withhold information available through the FOI Act would be liable for a civil fine of up to $1,000 under legislation pending in the House Government Operations Committee. (HB 5852)
Under a law signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm on April 22, the University of Michigan is prohibited from disclosing any private equity portfolio information, with the exception of fund names, aggregated amounts of investment and aggregate rates of realized returns. (SB 1032)
People in search of public records would not have to pay a fee for public bodies to separate exempt from nonexempt information — but only if the information could have been kept separate when the document was created or subsequently modified — under a bill that was sent to the House Committee on Government Operations. (HB 5025)
Legislators passed a bill allowing closed negotiations by a public body purchasing or selling real estate. However, at the urging of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, the bill requires the approval of the purchase or sale to be conducted at an open meeting, and the purchase or sale price to be made publicly available. (SF 2114)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a bill that permits public bodies to close meetings when receiving security briefings and reports. Any meeting involving the discussion of security systems, emergency response procedures and security deficiencies, or recommendations regarding public services, infrastructure and facilities can be closed if disclosure of the information would pose a danger to public safety or compromise security procedures or responses. However, all financial issues related to security matters must be made open at a meeting. (SF 1889)
The same bill revised language in the Data Practices Act to make clear that all litigation pleadings served on or by government entities are public. If the lawsuit was filed with the court, the document would be public in its entirety. But Minnesota is one of only a few states that still permits lawsuits in state courts to be started without filing the complaint with the court — permitting litigation to be pursued entirely out of public view. (SF 1889)
Two bills sought by the Mississippi Press Association this year related to campaign finance disclosure and incident reporting, said Carolyn Wilson, the association’s executive director. Neither measure was enacted.
The Campaign Finance Disclosure Law sought to impose stricter disclosure rules on special interest groups and clarify that contribution limits apply to political committees, not just parties, candidates and committees acting on behalf of candidates and parties. The bill passed the Senate and the House, but was vetoed by Gov. Haley Barbour.
The governor said that he will add the bill to a special session agenda if the words “political committee” are removed from a section of the bill that raises limits for corporate political contributions from $1,000 to $2,000 per year. If passed in special session, the bill would: require special interest groups to disclose how much money they are spending on political-related advertising and the names of donors; clarify that loans and loan guarantees are political contributions; and require candidates w ho raise more than $75,000 to file electronically. (HB 1244)
The House and Senate adopted joint-operating rules in February that opened all conference committee meetings to the public, including appropriations conferences.
In the first major improvement to the state’s Open Records Law and Open Meetings Law since 1998, Gov. Bob Holden signed a bill granting the public broad access to electronic records and “virtual” meetings. Legislators responded to changes in communications technology by expanding the definition of “public meetings” to include conference calls, video conference calls, Internet chat rooms and online message boards, as well as requiring public access to computer records and digitized government data, including e-mail messages. The bill also toughened penalties for violations of the state’s Sunshine Laws by significantly increasing fines and lowering the burden of proof for potential plaintiffs.
The same bill included homeland security exemptions for records outlining operational policies developed by first responders — police, fire and ambulance personnel — and information voluntarily submitted by non-public entities, such as private utility companies, to state or local governments about the security of their infrastructure. (SB 1020)
Holden also signed into law a bill that makes it easier for courts to dismiss libel suits against those who are participating in a public controversy. Such measures are called “anti-SLAPP” laws because harassment lawsuits brought in such controversies have come to be called “strategic litigation against public participation.” Under the law, a special expedited motion to dismiss can be brought by the defendant in any legal action over speech made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting, in order to ensure that frivolous actions can be dismissed early to avoid the expense of unnecessary litigation. If the court grants a motion to dismiss on those grounds, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred will be awarded. (SB 807)
Finally, a bill was passed that makes “all pleadings and orders of the juvenile court” open to the public. (HB 1453) Any party to a juvenile hearing can still ask the judge to close the hearing to the public.
The legislature convenes in odd years, and will meet again in January 2005
Gov. Mike Johanns signed a bill that grouped all state statutes dealing with open meetings as the “Open Meetings Act.” (LB 821) The bill also required the Nebraska State Fair Board to conduct its meetings in accordance with the Open Meetings Act.
No other substantial open access legislation was passed in the 2004 legislative session, according to Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association. However, a state attorney general’s opinion that names of applicants for the university’s presidency must be made public has triggered talk of legislation to require more confidentiality. Under Nebraska’s open records law, the applications of candidates for public jobs fall into the public domain as soon as applicants agree to be inte rviewed.
The University of Nebraska had made public the records of its four finalists for the presidency, but refused to release information pertaining to four other candidates who were interviewed but not officially named “finalists.” The attorney general’s opinion clarified that any face-to-face meeting constitutes an interview, and ordered the release of the names. State Sen. Kermit Brashear (R-Omaha) plans to introduce legislation next year that would require public disclosure only of the person offered the position, according Beermann.
The Nevada legislature meets biannually, with the next session scheduled to convene in 2005.
A state court ruled in June 2004 that the Nevada Board of Regents, the state’s governing body for public higher education, could not conduct certain business in closed-door meetings. Those actions include deliberations, recommendations or forming a consensus on action to be taken. This ruling will likely lead the legislature to consider two bills, currently in draft stages, that would amend the state’s open meeting law.
Some legislators want to strengthen the open meetings law by requiring the names of people who are to be discussed in a closed session of a public body to appear on an agenda, and to require that those people are notified in advance. A second draft bill allows any person whose character, alleged misconduct, professional competence or physical or mental health is called into question to attend the session in which such topics are discussed.
Gov. Craig Benson signed a bill allowing those who adopt a child access to the child’s original birth certificates bearing the names of the biological parents. Although the bill allows those who adopt to get non-certified copies of their child’s unaltered, original birth certificates, it does not grant access to any other birth or adoption-related records. (SB 335)
Benson also signed into law a bill exempting from the state open records act all preliminary drafts, notes and memoranda written by public officials for a public board meeting. The bill stipulates that the exemption only applies to documents not seen by a majority of the members of the public board. The law also requires the details of lawsuit settlements against the government open to public inspection. (HB 1295)
No substantial legislation relating to open records or open meetings was passed this year, said John O’Brian, executive director for the New Jersey Press Association.
However, a New Jersey superior court held that private, nonprofit corporations created for public redevelopment projects could be subject to open government laws. Another superior court judge ordered the state to make public “review notices” of medical malpractice settlements by insurance companies on behalf of doctors. The court found that confidentiality agreements do not entirely eliminate a common law public right of access.
A bill that calls for organizing government records through a system called “e-portal” was pending at the end of the 2004 legislative session. Backed by Gov. Bill Richardson, the “Electronic Government Act” would create a pricey e-portal system that would use the fees generated from government records to manage and fund the system. In order to obtain government records, members of the public would have to use e-portal and pay according to its tiered pricing system. (HB 291; SB 314)
Gov. George Pataki signed a law requiring operators of power generation and transmission facilities to report their ongoing security efforts to the state. The bill makes the reports subject to the state Freedom of Information Law, even though the law allows for the shielding of certain documents in the interest of public health and safety. (A9718)
A defeated bill would have required certain records discussed at open meetings to be made available to the public prior to the meeting for a reasonable fee. The bill would have required that non-exempt records — a proposed resolution, law, rule, regulation, policy or amendment scheduled to be presented and discussed by a public body at an open meeting — be made available for review upon request at least 72 hours prior to such meeting. (A4867)
The Senate introduced a bill requiring all non-profit corporations to be subject to freedom of information and open meetings laws. However, records identified as a public security threat by the Office of Public Security or the state police would not be subject to the freedom of information law and the open meetings law. (S06459)
The legislature passed a bill that exempts photographs and video and audio recordings of autopsy information from public records. (H 65)
Some details regarding medical malpractice settlement agreements would remain confidential under a bill passed during the 2003-04 legislature. The bill also keeps secret information of proceedings, records or materials produced in peer review committees that evaluate health care services. (S 802)
The North Dakota legislature, which meets biennially, will convene again in January 2005.
Gov. Bob Taft signed a law that bars public access to the names of concealed weapon permit holders, but allows journalists to obtain the information through a written request. (HB 12) Taft insisted that some access to the records be granted.
The governor also signed into law a bill giving state public health officials the authority to keep some information secret during health investigations of the suspected origins of bioterrorism attacks. The bill allows the health department to shield the identities of people or businesses under investigation until the case is completed. In cases that require lengthy investigations, preliminary details can be released every six months. Statistical and aggregate data are immediately available. (HB 6)
The state also created the Ohio Privacy/Public Record Access Study Committee. The committee is charged with recommending varying requirements for commercial users, journalists, researchers and the general public to access state computer systems. Additional issues include a citizens’ right to remove certain data from private records, assessing the government’s mechanical capability to redact electronically, and the related costs involved. (HB 204)
State officials responsible for public records access changed the state’s long-standing policy of making birth and death records easily available. Over-the-counter access to such records would allow terrorists and criminals to easily commit identity theft, they said. The changes include requiring formal requests and hefty fee increases to see records.
Gov. Brad Henry signed into law a bill opening pension records of state employees and elected officials. Former state law required public disclosure of retirees’ names and salaries only, whereas now records including birth certificates, marriage licenses and workers’ compensation information are open. (SB 1434)
The Homeland Security Act was amended to require the state Homeland Security Department’s to comply with the open meetings and records acts, stripping the bill of its exemption. (HB 2280)
Legislators enacted a law increasing the penalties for committing identity theft, and also created a mechanism for restitution for victims. Several bills proposed earlier in the session that would have closed records to prevent identity theft were dropped in favor of increasing the penalties. (SB 1168)
Legislators enacted a bill reducing the number of minutes photographers are permitted to take pictures in a voting area on election day, from 30 to five. It also prohibits taking photographs of individually marked ballots. (SB 1104)
A bill was defeated that would have allowed the Department of Corrections to keep all internal investigations confidential. (HB 2109)
Legislation passed by the House but defeated in the Senate proposed changing the open meetings law to allow public bodies to meet by video conference. Several bodies are now allowed to meet by teleconference or video conference. The Senate opposed the bill because too little information — documents and a list of those in attendance, for example — could be obtained by the viewing public. (HB 1670)
The biennial Oregon legislature will convene in January 2005.
Rep. Ellen Bard withdrew plans to introduce an amendment to the state shield law that would require reporters sued for defamation or invasion of privacy to reveal confidential sources. She had announced intentions to introduce the legislation in January, but declined to move forward without explanation.
Board meetings of The Dickinson School of Law must be opened to the public under a bill signed by Gov. Ed Rendell on July 15. The school is affiliated with Penn State University, but is partially independent. (SB 1039)
Gov. Don Carcieri withdrew a Homeland Security Plan bill that was widely criticized by civil libertarians, including the ACLU, as a threat to free speech. The bill would have made it illegal to speak or print any language in “defiance or disregard” of the state and federal constitutions. The bill would have expanded a law on the books since World War I that makes it illegal to “teach or advocate anarchy or the overthrow by force or violence” of the state and federal governments. Carcieri’s proposal would have revised the law to include the term “terrorism,” defined in the bill as anyone who advocates destroying government property.
The withdrawn bill would have also allowed businesses owners to withhold from public view records that show whether they have “fire protection equipment, [and] mandatory building emergency equipment” required under the state’s Fire Safety Code.
Additionally, the bill would have required school committees to develop annual “school safety audits” for every public school. The committees could then withhold portions of the audit unless a catastrophic event necessitates release of the complete audit.
The General Assembly designated Sept. 19-25 as Open Government Week. The House and Senate approved a concurrent resolution to acknowledge the importance of open government and the role of the Freedom of Information Act. (S1272)
Local government records are more accessible to the public under two open records bills passed during the session that ended in February. Information about completed investigations of private businesses or completed audits of public entities are now available as public record (SB 59), as are police departments’ daily log sheets that chronicle the police’s daily activity. (SB 60)
Additionally, a state board consisting of five attorneys will form to review claims of open meeting violations and rule on whether violations occurred. (SB 62)
The Senate rejected a bill that would have made criminal booking photos available to the public. (SB 61) One bill that passed will allow county officials to privately discuss information related to economic development in executive sessions. (SB 132) That bill was opposed by the South Dakota Newspaper Association.
Gov. Phil Bredesen signed a law amending the Tennessee Open Records Act to require disclosure of at least three types of student disciplinary records by state colleges and universities. The records include the results of disciplinary actions when a student is found guilty of a violent crime or sexual offense; information about any student who is a registered sex offender; and information pertaining to the laws or rules broken by the use of illegal drugs or alcohol. (SB 2098)
The legislature convenes in odd-numbered years.
The House Government Operations Committee killed proposed legislation that would have significantly curtailed public access to records. A bill that would have made records of state tax audits exempt from public inspection was defeated. (HB 33)
However, legislation was passed that creates an exemption to the state’s open meetings law by allowing public officials to discuss property tax information in closed session. (SB 163) Another new law exempts from public inspection a statewide database of pawn shop transactions compiled by law enforcement officials. (SB 192)
No press-related legislation was introduced in Vermont in its legislative session, beginning January 2004 and adjourning in May 2004.
In a blow to disclosure of information in Virginia, the General Assembly passed a bill exempting itself from some open meetings provisions of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The 140-member assembly can now close caucus discussions on strategy and legislation, although Democrats says they will keep their caucuses open, according to the Virginia Press Association. Floor sessions and committee meetings will continue to be subject to the open meetings laws. (HB 1357)
Executive branch agencies must now provide information to the public about their policies regarding release of information. How the agency responds to Freedom of Information Act requests and how long it takes to complete the request must be made available. The law also includes a provision requiring minutes of public meetings to include the date and time of the meeting, all persons present at the meeting, how each person voted if any votes occurred, and a summary of the proceedings of the meeting. (HB 358)
Access to cell phone numbers assigned to on-duty law enforcement officers will remain closed under the Freedom of Information Act. The Virginia Press Association sought to change this exemption, arguing that the public should be able to contact on-duty officers through their publicly funded cell phones. Records of who the officers called and minutes logged will be available to the public. (HB 538, SB 297)
Also, exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act will now be categorized rather than simply numbered to better determine where exemptions occur. (SB 352)
Nearly two dozen bills regarding public access laws were introduced in the legislature, but they either died in committee or did not reach the floor vote.
One bill would have required the owner of valuable commercial information to be notified of a public records request relating to the information. (SB 6545) The owner could have then provided a written statement explaining the continuing need for confidentiality within 10 business days of receipt of the notice, to be forwarded to the requester.
Another bill would have created new exemptions to the state public records law for domestic security purposes. (HB 2953) It would have exempted information regarding the internal layout, structural elements, infrastructure or security of any building or structure — whether publicly or privately owned — if the disclosure of such information would have a reasonable likelihood of threatening public safety. (HB 2953)
Three bills that would have protected personal information of public employees died in committee. (HB 3046, HB 2316, SB 6257) Also, four other bills that stalled would have facilitated access to disciplinary records of public employees (SB 6170, SB 6218, SB 6219, HB 2456)
Gov. Bob Wise signed a bill that exempts from the state Freedom of Information Act personal information of state employees and their dependants, such as home addresses, Social Security and driver’s license numbers, maiden names, and debit and credit card numbers. (HB 4020)
Public records became more accessible under a law that clarified the notice-and-review process for most public records. Signed by Gov. Jim Doyle in August 2003, the bill provides citizens access to most records in public employees’ personnel files. It also establishes a process and time frame for notification and review. (AB 196)
Information regarding utility companies’ security systems will not be exempt from the state’s open records law, after Doyle vetoed a bill that would have kept the records secret. (SB 8)
While no legislation relating to access to information was introduced, the Wyoming Press Association spent the year drafting a penalty clause for the state’s Open Meetings Act. The act currently carries no penalties for violation.
Jim Angell, executive director of the association, said the group will propose a civil fine that would be paid to the general fund of the county where the violation occurred. Angell said he hopes to introduce such legislation next year.