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SPJ president urges Maryland senators to amend Bill 740


Hagit Limor, SPJ President, (513) 852-4012, hlimor@spj.org
Andrew M. Scott, SPJ Communications Coordinator, (317) 927-8000 ext. 215, ascott@spj.org

On March 22, 2011, SPJ President Hagit Limor sent letters urging state senators in Maryland to amend Senate Bill 740. If made into law, 740 would limit citizens’ and journalists’ ability to obtain records in the public domain with redaction of critical metadata, expensive fees and access determined by third-party custodians acting in the interest of government.

A copy of the letter is below:

Dear Senator:

The Society of Professional Journalists opposes Senate Bill 740 in its current form. We also oppose a proposed amendment that would allow a state agency to continue outsourcing public databases to a private contractor who then profits by charging significant sums for those public resources.

Despite the SB 740’s stated purpose of enhancing access to public records in electronic formats, we believe that this bill is so deeply flawed that it would undermine the access. The relevant issues are important and can be complex. We respectfully urge you to amend SB 740 to remove its flaws, or to refer it to summer study. This would allow the General Assembly to craft legislation that would uphold the public’s right know, truly meet SB 740’s stated goal, and bring the Maryland Public Information Act into accord with the federal Electronic Freedom of Information Act and with more progressive laws in other states.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is a national organization that includes broadcast, print and online journalists, journalism educators, and students interested in journalism as a career. As a core part of our mission, we work to promote freedom of information so that people may better understand how their government works and may engage in the democratic process from a well-informed perspective. Through Project Sunshine, National Sunshine Week, and other initiatives, the SPJ educates its members and the public about the value and workings freedom of information. Our members and other journalists often seek access to public records, including records in useful electronic formats.

We know that the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Society of Environmental Journalists and other public-interest organizations have pointed out serious flaws in SB 740. We share their concerns about SB 740’s inaccurate definition of “metadata”, its overly vague definition of acceptable electronic formats, its provision allowing agencies to scrub metadata from public records, and its failure to set limits on the fees that agencies seek to charge for electronic records. We encourage you to give careful considerations the concerns and suggestions that they have laid out in their testimony.

Inaccurate Definition of Metadata: SB 740’s current definition of metadata is inaccurate and does not comply with standard definitions recognized by state and federal courts, and by other authorities. The definition should be struck or it should be amended to comply with those recognized definitions. In addition, metadata should be treated like any other information in a public record – protected where it is legally exempt, provided where it is not.

Allowing Custodians to Redact Information About a Public Record’s History: This type of information can be vital to authenticating a public record and to understanding the public process. Allowing a custodian to scrub this type of information simply because it exists as metadata is unnecessary and undermines the public’s right to know. Moreover, federal courts and the two state supreme courts have ruled that metadata is intrinsic to a public record and generally should be provided as part of an electronic record. Any agency that redacts metadata from a public record should be required to provide the requestor with a full accounting of those redactions, one that is sufficiently detailed for the requestor to understand the potential impacts of those redactions and to contest the redactions if necessary.

Continuing to Allow Agencies Too Much Latitude on Electronic Formats: If SB 740 is to meet its own stated purpose and the intent of the Maryland Public Information Act, then it should be amended to require clear, compelling language on required and permitted formats. As required under federal law and other states’ laws, if an agency possesses a public record in an electronic format, and a person or organization asks for the record in that electronic format, the agency generally must provide the record in that format at the least cost and with the least delay.

Failing to Provide Adequate Guidance on Reasonable Fees: The practice of charging large sums for public records that have been created with public resources for public purposes obstructs public access and discriminates against people and organizations who lack the resources to purchase public data or bring legal action. This is especially true in the case of electronic records that can relatively easily and inexpensively be copied to a compact disk or posted to an agency web site. We encourage you to provide needed clarity on this point, generally limiting the amount that an agency may charge to the direct, incremental cost of creating a copy of a public record.

We encourage you to do the important work of removing these flaws from SB 740 and strengthening this legislation so that it enhances rather than undermines transparency in Maryland.


Hagit Limor

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