A member of the legislature’s panel tasked with balancing transparency and victim privacy expressed concern Wednesday that the group’s membership is weighted too heavily in favor of reducing public access to information.
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 those 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.
During the group’s second meeting, James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said that the law that created the task force was negotiated in secret by the governor’s office, the legislature, and the chief state’s attorney’s office. Most of the panel’s members, he said, prioritized privacy over transparency.
“My concern is that a clear majority, in my opinion, of this task force comes down on the side of privacy and secrecy,” Smith, a retired newspaper editor, said.
In addition to Smith, the group includes four lawmakers, four members of the media, the chief public defender, chief state’s attorney, the state victim advocate, the emergency services and public protection commissioner, a constitutional law professor, a police officer, a community nonprofit director, as well as the executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission.
“Those of us on the [freedom of information] side have a real job here to try to remind all of us that, I think, in a democracy it is wrong to hide information about crimes from the American people,” he said.
Smith’s comments came as the group was reading through the law that created it and trying to interpret its provisions. There were areas that caused confusion among members of the group.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we’re having trouble with this legislation because it was all done in secret,” he said.
Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, tried to explain the hurried process that preceded the passage of the bill. He said lawmakers only became aware of the issue late in the legislative session after a “high profile” individual expressed interest in obtaining images and documents from the Sandy Hook massacre. Fasano said legislators were concerned that person would create an “exploitive media piece.” After the meeting, Fasano said he was referring to filmmaker Michael Moore.
Without time to hold public hearings, Fasano said lawmakers passed the FOI legislation but also created the task force to look at the issues from more perspectives. He said the legislators who promoted the bill made it clear they did not consider it “the answer.”
“We had to react because this has never happened in Connecticut to that degree. I think it was a reasonable stopgap method while the [Sandy Hook] investigation was still going on . . .” he said. “I want to be clear: if it was the intent of the legislature to say ‘We want to do this in the deepest part of the Capitol and we’re done,’ you would not have this task force.”
Later in the meeting, Smith said he had been “counting noses” and viewed the panel’s membership as leaning towards victim’s privacy over open access to information. He said he hoped everyone could keep an open mind and “have a reasonable debate.”
Smith interjected again when panel’s conversation turned to whether aspects of the law should be interpreted to apply to all crime victims rather than just the victims of homicide. He argued that the group should not allow that to happen.
“It began with the families in Newtown and then it moved to every homicide in the state of Connecticut, which is very unwise. We can not allow it to mean every crime committed. We simply can not allow that to happen,” he said.
Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, said he understood Smith’s perspective, but said that lawmakers intended the law to apply to explicit images of violence.
“We’re talking about graphic images of a crime. We’re talking about graphic images of a victim of something and whether or not that is something that should be released for public consumption,” Carter said.
Smith said the panel should not seek to “sanitize” culture, a practice he said newspapers often engage in rather than upset their readers. He said upsetting images of violence in Vietnam helped change the public’s perception of that war.
“We have to be very careful about what we think we can make people avert their eyes to,” he said.