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SPJ joins amicus brief supporting appeal to open death records at Nebraska mental hospital


For Immediate Release:

Dave Aeikens, SPJ President, (320) 255-8744,
Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Coordinator, (317) 927-8000 ext. 211, sleadingham@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has joined seven other media organizations in an amicus brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that fights to maintain open records in the public interest in Nebraska.

At issue is the Adams County Historical Society’s request to obtain the names of 957 people buried on the grounds of the Hastings Regional Center, a state-operated mental hospital. The patients in question died between 1909 and 1959 and were buried in unmarked graves. The historical society sued after the state refused to release the names. A trial court reasoned that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – HIPAA – overruled state open records laws allowing the release of information about deceased individuals. The case is on appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

“This is a misuse of the federal health privacy laws,” said SPJ President Dave Aeikens. “Nebraska law is clear that death records are public. We urge the Nebraska Supreme Court to uphold this important concept.”

The media groups argue in the brief that Nebraska law indeed allows the release of death and burial information, and further state that using the federal law to restrict the names goes against the intent of HIPAA. The brief also argues that the public interest is best served by releasing information that can shed light on possible abuses or mismanagement at the facility in the past.

“It’s crucial that the public has access to death records, including mental hospital cemetery records, so we can identify problems in our society,” said David Cuillier, chairman of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee. “It is through these kinds of records, which do not invade the privacy of living patients, that journalists have been able to expose severe societal problems, such as forced imprisonment and abuses in mental hospitals.”

In addition to the Reporters Committee and SPJ, joining the brief to support the request of the historical society are the American Society of Newspaper Editors; Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors; Associated Press; Nebraska Broadcasters Association; Nebraska Press Association; and Radio-Television News Directors Association.

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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