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Port Authority releases transcripts of calls from September 11

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Freedom of Information    

Port Authority releases transcripts of calls from September 11

  • The New York Times successfully sued for release of transcripts of the Port Authority police commands during and after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

Aug. 28, 2003 — Nearly 2,000 pages of transcripts of emergency calls made on September 11, 2001, to Port Authority police commands from police officers and civilians were to be released to news media by 5 p.m .today under an order by Bergen County, N.J., Superior Court.

Judge Sylvia R. Moses ruled Friday that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey could not renege on its settlement agreement to provide The New York Times with transcripts of those calls. In turn, the Times agreed that the agency should simultaneously release the records to other news media.

The Times had told the court that the transcripts are a historical record of public employees doing their job during a national emergency and that they must be released under the states’ open records laws. Transcriptions of horrific exchanges that involve the public interest have been made in the past and should be made here, the newspaper’s attorney said. He pointed to the public sharing of records from the black box from an airliner, the demise of a space shuttle and “frantic calls for help” from a 911 call.

The newspaper requested tapes and transcripts in March 2002 and sued the Port Authority for them in June. Then in late July the Times and the agency’s senior counsel and freedom of information officer reached a settlement under which the newspaper would receive the transcripts and forego the tapes. The agreement contained some safeguards for notifying the agency so that it could in turn notify families when publication was pending.

But after the court approved the settlement, the Port Authority decided not to follow through. And when the Times sued to enforce the agreement, the agency told the court that the release of the transcripts would violate privacy rights of the callers. It would have “significant, traumatic and psychologically scarring” effects on survivors and the families of deceased victims. The disclosures would be “clearly repugnant to sound morality,” it said.

On Monday the Port Authority announced that it would not appeal the court’s rule.

The head of the Port Authority’s Office of Medical Services Lillian Valenti told Newsday that the tapes show a remarkable “calm, even tone amid the chaos.” She said the transcripts show a stunning degree of objectivity and professional interchange in trying to evacuate as many people as possible.

(The New York Times Co. v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; media counsel: Bruce Rosen, McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen, Carvelli & Walsh, Chatham, N.J.) RD

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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