A legislative panel considering privacy and government transparency issues raised by the Newtown shooting began working Thursday with advocates on both sides of the controversial issue favoring very different outcomes.
The task force was formed as part of a new law which prevents the public release of any photograph or video recording that portrays the body of a homicide victim. The law also prohibits for one year, the release of certain law enforcement audio recordings like ones describing the bodies of children who were murdered.
Families of some of the victims of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre lobbied heavily for the bill late in the legislative session.
The bill created a 17-member task force asked to make recommendations on the “balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.” It met for the first time Thursday at the state Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
Members of the panel acknowledged they would need to draft recommendations regarding aspects of the new law which sunset next year like the prohibition on the release of law enforcement recordings.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, representatives of the group offered opposing views of how that issue should be handled.
“I would like to see the recordings never released,” said Rep. DebraLee Hovey, a Republican lawmaker whose district includes part of Newtown.
“I don’t view them as having any purpose for the public whatsoever. The public is not going to — there’s no lesson to be learned from these,” she said.
The Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists stands on the other side of the argument.
Jodie Mozdzer Gil, an online journalist who serves as the group’s president, said the organization was sensitive to the concerns raised by the shooting, but would like to see public information remain public.
That includes the photographs banned permanently under the legislation, which Mozdzer said she couldn’t imagine a newspaper publishing.
“If we’re allowing the government to decide that something should not be public, how do we know that they’re doing the right thing? Versus if we’re letting professional journalists be the ones to decide whether or not this is something we should publish. They’re the ones that should be the gatekeeper, not the government,” she said.
Mozdzer said photos and information from crime scenes could help to assess the response of law enforcement agencies or expose incidents of police misconduct.
“The question is, if there is alleged police misconduct or not, how do we know unless we have access to information,” she said.
Hovey disagreed, saying that the government could evaluate police conduct and law enforcement response to emergency situations without releasing sensitive information publicly.
“I think the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office can assess all of that via all of the documentation that they have,” she said.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane helped negotiate the legislation carving out exceptions to the Freedom of Information law. He said the release of law enforcement recordings will need to be something the task force weighs carefully.
“I think this panel needs to address it. I mean, these are the dying words of people, whether they’re victims of crime or firefighters in a building where the roof collapses,” he said.
Mozdzer and the SPJ feel the decision regarding whether the recordings are released to the general public should rest on the “journalists’ shoulders.” Hovey, meanwhile, has been a vocal critic of the media and its “over-the-top” coverage in the days following the Dec. 14 shooting.
But the argument will have to wait until another day. In its first meeting, the task force did little more than introduce themselves to one another and tentatively schedule a second meeting for Aug. 21.
Don DeCesare, general manager of WLIS and WMRD who is serving as one of the panel’s two chairman, said he expected a lively debate before the group concluded its work.
“My suspicion is that somewhere down the line we’re going to have some spirited conversations both among ourselves and even potentially with folks who will be testifying before us,” he told the task force.