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Reporters Committee urges release of burial records

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is asking the Nebraska Supreme Court to release burial records of people…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is asking the Nebraska Supreme Court to release burial records of people buried on the grounds of a state mental hospital. The Reporters Committee submitted a brief Thursday on behalf of itself and seven other leading media organizations in support of a lawsuit brought by a local historical society.

The Adams County Historical Society sought the names and other related information for almost 1,000 people who were buried at the Hastings Regional Center, a state mental hospital. The deceased were residents of the hospital when it was known as an asylum for the incurably insane. The most recent burial occurred in the 1950s and the graves are marked only by numbers.

The hospital maintains records that match the numbers to patient names, but it has refused to release the information on the grounds that they are private medical records. The Reporters Committee brief supports the historical society’s assertion that the records are instead death records and are public under both Nebraska law and the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.    

“By allowing access to the names of those who are buried on hospital grounds, the public and the press can fulfill their role as a watchdog — and allow those who died at HRC to have a voice where they once had none,” the brief argued.  

“It is clear that new federal medical privacy laws do not trump state open records laws that make the burial records public,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. “Release of the burial records will allow Nebraskans to learn more about how taxpayer-owned and  operated mental institutions were operated in the early 20th Century.”  

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, The Associated Press, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, the Nebraska Broadcasters’ Association, the Nebraska Press Association, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists joined the friend-of-the-court brief.