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SPJ reaction to Utah law restricting public records: ‘This is not how democracies function’


For Immediate Release:

David Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman, (520) 626-9694,
Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Director, (317) 927-8000, ext. 211

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists and its Freedom of Information Committee strongly condemn the actions of the Utah Legislature and Governor Gary Herbert, who on March 8 signed into law a measure that effectively ends Utah’s long history of government transparency.

With the signing of HB477, which takes effect July 1, Utah public officials are exempt from disclosing a broad range of electronic communications. Further, people requesting public records – citizens and journalists alike – will be responsible for undefined “administrative” and “overhead costs.”

By signing the bill, Governor Herbert ignored a public rally, numerous letters and e-mails sent by citizens outraged by the bill, and the collective sentiment of the open government community. Worse, he did so less than a day after he claimed that he was “pleased” by the Senate’s 23-6 vote to stop HB477 from going into effect immediately and delay its implementation until July 1. The House quickly followed suit, approving the effective date change by a vote of 42-29.

Governor Herbert was quoted as saying, “I’m encouraged they are committed to amending the bill in order to provide for a more thorough and deliberative process.”

Then, hours later, he signed the bill.

In a prepared statement, the governor said: “This bill provides a way to find the right balance between the public’s right to know and the personal privacy of both constituents and policymakers, while protecting taxpayer dollars.”

“Our goal is open and transparent government,” he said.

Were this even remotely true, he would have vetoed HB477 instantly, as the bill takes Utah back to the days before freedom of information laws existed.

SPJ urges the Utah legislature to revisit this disastrous bill and condemns Governor Herbert’s complete lack of honesty and transparency in the process. This is not how democracies function.

“I am disappointed, both as a journalist but first and foremost as a citizen of Utah, in the actions of our lawmakers and governor,” said Tom Haraldsen, president of SPJ’s Utah chapter. “The intent of this bill, and the process by which it was rapidly introduced and passed in just two days near the end of the legislative session, negated any opportunity for the public to truly weigh in and have its say about this law. SPJ members and like-minded citizens in Utah will not allow this new law and its perceived secretive intentions to go unchallenged.”

A few of the outrageous components of the bill include:

-- HB477 exempts from disclosure, with the exception of e-mail, any electronic communications, including text messages, voice mails or video chat regardless of whether public officials are conducting public business or not.
Unlike every other state in the country, Utah is now embracing the concept that the medium, rather than the message, is what’s important when it comes to openness.

In an era in which more and more governmental business will be conducted through electronic means, this is a stunning reversal. It removes any semblance of public and press scrutiny from a whole range of government communications, forever, in a single section.

-- HB477 ushers in the nation’s worst, most open-ended, ill-defined language about the costs of accessing public information. Under the current law open records, requesters are responsible for paying direct administrative costs. The new law presents taxpayers with double taxation, making requesters responsible for administration and undefined “overhead costs.”

-- Perhaps worst of all, HB477 strips from Utah’s public records law language stating clearly that government records are presumed to be public and that the burden is on government to show why records should not be disclosed. This is critical language recognized by the statutes or common law of every state in the country.

“With one scribble of a pen, the governor made his state the most secretive in the nation, as well as more secretive than most countries, including Mexico and Albania,” SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman David Cuillier said. “This will price citizens out of their government, encourage corruption and online sweetheart deals, and embolden those who would undermine democratic principles.”

Utah's new law is a significant retreat from the core principles that made this country great: government by the people, for the people has been replaced by dishonesty, imperial arrogance and utter disregard for public discourse.

“I don't think these elected officials understand what they just did,” Cuillier said. “If they knew the fundamental reasons for open government – and our country's history – as well as how other governments operate, then they would understand that they are moving down a dangerous path. And if they do understand, then I fear for the citizens of Utah and this nation.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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