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Katharine Graham speech on court records and privacy concerns

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    NMU         NEW YORK         Secret Courts         Jul 18, 2001    

Katharine Graham speech on court records and privacy concerns

  • In a May speech accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Reporters Committee, Katharine Graham emphasized the need to allow electronic access to court files, even as critics focus on privacy concerns.

Katharine Graham was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press at a formal dinner in New York City on May 22, 2001. Her remarks made in accepting the award, imploring judges to keep court records open in electronic format, follow.

Good evening, everyone. And thank you for this wonderful, lifetime achievement award, which I deeply appreciate. However, I have to confess: I’m hesitant about accepting any award that has the term “lifetime” in its title. At my age, “lifetime” has an end-of-the-road connotation that’s rather alarming.

If a lifetime in journalism has taught me anything, it’s this: that freedom of the press is not a permanently enduring characteristic of our democratic society. On the contrary: freedom of the press is a right that must be constantly exercised and constantly defended.

Just because we don’t have Watergate and the Pentagon Papers to deal with, doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about.

For example, one of the most serious threats to press freedom today is a little-understood by-product of our increasingly digital world.

Well-meaning legislators, state and local governments, and the courts have become fearful of potential invasions of privacy, made possible by the electronic storage and dissemination of information — particularly over the Internet.

In considering the problem, they’ve lumped together concerns about private information in such things as credit and medical files, with information in court records.

As a result, one of the remedies being discussed is very threatening to news organizations and to the public itself.

Federal and state officials are now considering whether to change the rules and deny public access to court documents that have always been open to the public — simply because they are now available in electronic forms.

This would be devastating. Court records are the building blocks of hundreds of stories that serve the public interest every year. Court information stored electronically offers even greater advantages for uncovering news our readers need to know.

Consider these examples:

The Chicago Tribune analyzed computerized records of court files and other records to determine the extent that errors made by hospital nurses led to patient deaths.

The investigation revealed that since 1995, 1,700 patients had been accidentally killed from the mistakes of nurses across the country — nurses whose jobs have been altered by reductions in staff and other cost-cutting measures at U.S. hospitals.

The World, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, analyzed computerized court records to determine why there were so many alcohol-related fatal crashes in the state. The resulting series revealed a system filled with loopholes, reluctant to fully criminalize drunk driving, or to treat aggressively the underlying abuse issues.

Last year, The Washington Post ran a series exposing fatal flaws in homicide investigations by the D.C. Police Department. The series relied heavily on computer analyses of court records to track the progress of individuals through the criminal justice system.

Without access to computerized court records, none of these stories could have been written. Nor could the news media have published hundreds of others that relied on paper court records that would no longer be public, once they were converted to electronic formats. The public would be the ultimate loser.

Certainly, there are legitimate privacy concerns in today’s electronic world. But in all the discussions about privacy, people seem to have lost sight of something equally vital.

The business transacted in courts is public business that people should be encouraged to know about. And the ability to analyze how the court system works is essential to the concept of government accountability on which our democratic system is built.

The real issue is how to balance legitimate privacy concerns with the importance of maintaining an open court system. Striking this balance may not be easy. But certain key principles should govern the search.

First, most legitimate privacy concerns have nothing to do with court records. Court records, by their nature, are and must remain public.

Second, we need to move carefully. Officials shouldn’t rush to take broad, potentially harmful action. We need to wait for particular problems to emerge.

Third, we should see whether traditional remedies to maintain privacy in paper formats can’t satisfy most concerns raised by electronic information. In particular, the long-standing ability of judges to seal court records for legitimate reasons may well safeguard privacy both in digital and paper environments.

Fourth — and I’m not sure it will need to get this far — if some information traditionally available in paper court records is determined to be especially sensitive, then narrow solutions for these data should be considered.

Above all, we must make the courts, state and federal legislators — and the public — aware of the harmful consequences that broad-scale closure of court records would entail.

I believe this is a major responsibility for the Reporters Committee and it is participating in this effort. But all of us in the news business must be alert to this threat and do all we can to prevent it from happening.

In this way, we’ll continue to preserve the freedom of the press that’s the bedrock of our democracy. And we’ll fulfill our duties to our readers and our country.

Thank you, again, for this wonderful award.

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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