A task force weighing the privacy rights of crime victims against open access to public records under the Freedom of Information Act will have its third and final public hearing Wednesday morning in the Legislative Office Building.
The group was created as part of a new law restricting the release of some police records pertaining to homicide victims and victims who are children. The bill was passed by lawmakers after families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting appealed to the legislature to stop the release of records pertaining to the Dec. 14 incident.
The law has been described as a “stopgap” measure passed while the investigation into the shooting is ongoing. The task force is meant to inform more permanent legislative action on the issue and is scheduled to make recommendations to lawmakers by Jan. 1.
According to the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, the group’s national president, David Cuillier will testify at the hearing, presumably to argue against curtailing the state’s public disclosure law. SPJ’s leadership wrote to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in May to oppose the closed-door negotiations that led to the legislation.
Although the group’s first public hearing at a church in Hartford was sparsely attended, several people came out to give testimony for the panel’s second hearing last Wednesday in Bridgeport, including some family members of the Sandy Hook victims. The entire event was filmed by the Connecticut Network — www.ctn.state.ct.us — which has posted the video on its website.
Those who testified last week were overwhelmingly in favor of carving out more disclosure exemptions to the state’s Freedom of Information law.
Dean Pinto, a father whose son, Jack, was killed during the Dec. 14 massacre was among those who spoke at the Bridgeport hearing. He argued that state’s FOI laws need to be restricted in light of technology which gives anyone the ability to spread information.
“While our Freedom of Information laws may have been adequate in a world where only the mainstream media disseminated information, that is simply no longer the case,” he said. “. . . Today, anyone with a computer can have a broader audience than your local newspaper and decency and discretion seem to be unrecognizable concepts that can no longer be counted on even in the most tragic of circumstances.”
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch agreed. He told the panel there should be some legal carve-out to protect the privacy of crime victims and their families. Finch said there can not be “an absolute right to freedom of speech.”
“I don’t think it is a weakening of the First Amendment, I think it’s a maturation of the First Amendment. We’re not talking about reasonable people all the time with editorial boards, we’re not talking about people who have a filter of common decency. We are talking about bloggers. We’re talking about people who want the most salacious thing to share with their friends,” he said.
Another father of a Sandy Hook victim was highly critical of the job the news media itself has done. Mark Mattioli, whose son, James, was among those killed Dec. 14, said the news media uses graphic details unnecessarily and spoke of an incident where one reporter showed up on his doorstep even after he twice declined to speak to her by phone.
“There is a real cost to such exploitation and I’m here to put a face on that pain,” he said.
James Smith, a member of the task force and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said journalists must cover tragedies because it is their job to inform the public of what has happened in society.
“What we’ve always tried to do with the victims of tragedy is offer them an opportunity to talk . . . about family members who were either killed or maimed to make it as human as it can possibly be done. You do that as respectfully as you possibly can,” he said.