Indianapolis - SPJ National President Clint Brewer and National Freedom of Information Chairman David Cuillier sent a letter Wednesday to Pennsylvania lawmakers to oppose amendments to the state's open records law (H.B. 443) currently before the legislature.
If passed with the amendments, the bill could make Pennsylvania one of the most secret states in the nation. Below is the text of the letter:
Oct. 24, 2007
Hon. Josh Shapiro
105B East Wing
PO Box 202153
Harrisburg, PA 17120-2153
Dear Hon. Shapiro:
The Society of Professional Journalists, the largest association of working journalists representing news media outlets, college student journalists and journalism educators, writes to voice its strong opposition to the amendments added to the open records bill (HB 443) and urge you to send the measure back to committee for discussion and reconsideration, or vote it down outright. The bill as amended, ironically, would make Pennsylvania one of the most secret states, if not the most secret state, in the nation.
We support several provisions in the bill, such as putting the burden on the government to prove why a document should be kept secret, and allowing the requestor to choose the format of the record if it is available in print or electronically. Also, some of the exemptions are acceptable, such as for open investigations and medical records. However, we find the bill lacking and deviant from most other states in several ways:
First, the bill exempts far too much material that is routinely provided in all but a handful of other states, including e-mail, 911 tapes, agency audits, disciplinary and discharge records in government employee personnel files, and the addresses and birth dates of people included in government records. These exemptions will not protect people from privacy invasion and identity theft, but will only allow malfeasance to go unnoticed.
Second, the law should apply to all records, regardless of when the records were created, and should not pertain only to records created once the law is passed. We know of no states that grandfather in secrecy when updating their open records laws. It just doesn’t make sense. When women were provided the right to vote in 1920, the law applied to all women, including those born before ratification of the law.
Third, the ability for an agency to deny a request because it is deemed by an official as “burdensome” or an attempt to harass the agency is overly broad, vague and likely to result in blanket denials. Also, many states require a response within three or five days, not 10, and the ability to provide the record 20 days after the determination further delays access beyond reason.
Fourth, the public records office executive director should be appointed by the State Ethics Commission, which oversees the office, not by the governor. The more hands-off the person is from the agencies regulated the better.
Many more changes are needed to the bill, in conjunction with those who know how this legislation will work in real life. This bill has promise, but it needs more work and the revisions should be done in the light of day with full transparency and input from the citizenry and affected groups. If it does not go back to committee, then the bill should be voted down in the House. Although we speak on behalf of thousands of journalists, we do not see open government as a “media” issue. Studies show that about two-thirds of public records requests are submitted by businesses, a quarter by citizens, and about 6-10 percent by journalists. This is a public issue. Those framing the legislation ought to look at what is reasonable and what works in other states. Otherwise, Pennsylvania will be the poster child of secrecy and the courts filled with citizens litigating over legislative language that is vague, confusing and unworkable.
Clint Brewer, National President
Society of Professional Journalists
David Cuillier, National Freedom of Information Chairman
Society of Professional Journalists