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Cuillier: Utah is 'darkest abyss in the U.S.'


SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman David Cuillier has written a column on the recent passing and signing of Utah’s HB477, which restricts access to public records. In response, the committee has named the Utah Legislature and governor recipients of the first national Black Hole Award.

The column is below and open for publication. For questions or information, contact SPJ Communications Director Scott Leadingham at 317-927-8000 ext. 211 or sleadingham@spj.org.

And the Black Hole Award goes to... Utah, the darkest abyss in the U.S.

By David Cuillier

I'm going to spend spring break in Utah.

Not a lot of partying, and not much sunshine. In fact, it's so dark in Utah right now that on Wednesday I will be in Salt Lake City to present the governor and Legislature the Society of Professional Journalists' national "Black Hole Award" for exceptional efforts to undermine freedom of information.

This was one of the easiest contests I've judged. Slam dunk. No question. A unanimous decision among our dozen national SPJ Freedom of Information Committee members. We had a half dozen nominees for the award – all worthy of dishonor – but naming Utah was so easy it was scary.

The timing of Utah's evisceration of its public record law this month couldn't have been better - or worse: It's national Sunshine Week.

This is a week intended to bring awareness to the importance of freedom of information, held on the anniversary of James Madison's birthday, March 16. The "Father of the Bill of Rights" said such things as, "A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people," and "Despotism can only exist in darkness."

As a researcher and teacher of all things freedom of information, I can tell you that despotism is having an easier time in this country because of a continual creep toward secrecy and darkness.

We have never seen anything in recent history, not since World War II, like we've seen in Utah.

Last week Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law HB477, which gutted the state's Government Records Access and Management Act, effective July 1. More irony: That will be close to the 55th anniversary of the July 4, 1966, signing of the federal Freedom of Information Act. So much has changed since then.

The Utah legislation makes text messages secret, allowing officials to hide their public business with lobbyists or any other business they don't want known. The legislation allows for exorbitant fees that will price citizens out of their government. The legislation requires citizens to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that government information should be provided to the people, completely opposite other public record laws.

Utah's law, which was in the top dozen states for transparency, will now be the most secretive in the nation. Not only that, I compared the law to other nations' laws and found that Utah will be more backward than most other countries, including Mexico and former Soviet republics Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. El Salvador just passed a better law last week.

The silver lining? Utah is still more transparent than Kazakhstan.

I've heard people say, "well, yeah, Mexico might have a good law, but corruption is rampant," as if justifying poor laws in the United States. The reality is journalists and citizens in Mexico have a much better time getting public records than U.S. citizens, at least based on my observations and discussions with Mexican journalists. Record audits show that on average, police in the U.S. will illegally deny a valid request for a simple crime log three-quarters of the time.

No matter what country you live in strong laws aren't a guarantee of good governance, but they're a start. Proponents of the Utah legislation say they made the changes to protect citizens' privacy and to save local governments money. But the reality is the previous law already had protected citizens and local agencies. The only thing the new legislation allows for is government to hide corruption, nepotism and gaffes.

Maybe that was the idea.

The governor also explained why the changes were kept secret and then sprung at the last minute for adoption within a few days: that the media, which has a special self-interest in open records, would use their sway to derail it. The governor paints the press as a special interest group looking out for its own.

Sure, when I covered government agencies as a newspaper reporter, I relied on public records. About a fifth of all news stories include to some extent information from government documents, usually police reports, budgets and audits. Journalists serve as proxies for the public. That's why I'm so interested in freedom of information.

But this not a "press" issue. This is a citizen issue.

Reporters are not swarming around like angry bees because this secrecy makes their job harder. I'm sure The Salt Lake Tribune can handle increased copy fees, and reporters will find a way to get information. No, journalists - and others - are outraged because they know the importance of open government for businesses and citizens.

Only 5-10 percent of public records requests are submitted by journalists. About two-thirds are submitted by commercial interests and the rest by citizens and non-profits. Government information keeps our nation's economic machine greased. You shut down information and you shut down democracy and capitalism. That's why about 80 nations have adopted freedom of information laws - to spur economic development and democratic reform.

With any hope, the Utah governor and Legislature will scrap the changes they hastily rushed into law and push for strong constitutional protections for people to know what their government is up to.

Why should we care outside of the Mountain West? Because what happens in Utah might not stay in Utah. Secrecy, like darkness, has a tendency to spread.

So while we spend billions of dollars and soldiers' lives defending democracy in the world, and while former communist nations embrace open-government ideals, we have a very strong chance of losing democracy right here, in our own homeland, if we let it.

Don't let freedom die. Exercise your right to be informed about your government, and demand that the people you voted into office stay accountable and open.

This is especially true for those living in Utah, a spectacular state with great rock formations, skiing, people, and for a while, transparency laws, all worthy of its slogan, "Life Elevated."

Come July 1, unless the Legislature sees the light, their license plates might more appropriately read, "Well, at least we're not Kazakhstan."

David Cuillier, Ph.D., is a former newspaper reporter and editor from Washington state and Idaho and is currently an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism, Freedom of Information Committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, and co-author of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.” Reach him at cuillier@email.arizona.edu.

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