Freedom of Information advocates and historians are hoping lawmakers will agree this year to repeal a last-minute 2011 law that historical researchers say has stifled their work in Connecticut.
The law was buried in a 137-page bill and passed following a lengthy information request dispute between the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and a history professor at Central Connecticut State University.
The professor, Matthew Warshauer, and his students were researching incidents of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the Civil War and had requested patient records of soldiers who were treated at a department-run hospital during that era.
Although Warshauer eventually won access to the records, DMHAS resisted the request and Warshauer co-authored a long article in the academic journal Civil War History about difficulties accessing records in Connecticut and the value of such research.
“Perhaps the most important item learned from the process and our findings is the stark relevance this history has for today’s soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he wrote.
The professor’s Freedom of Information victory was short-lived, however. In June of 2011, language was added to a lengthy bill which applied a confidentiality privilege to the types of records Warshauer and his students had sought for their research.
The language, contained in one of 98 sections in that legislation, was based on a bill that had been proposed earlier in the session but failed to pass out of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.
At a public hearing on the original bill, DMHAS Commissioner Patricia Rehmer submitted written testimony saying the Freedom of Information Commission’s decision to release records to Warshauer caused her department “grave concern.”
“Though the individuals were deceased, it is our firm belief that records of this nature are very sensitive and that family members of those who have been in state hospitals would not want that information disclosed,” she wrote.
The legislature eventually agreed and amended language into another bill late in the session.
In a letter written last year to Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, Warshauer said that decision has made access to historical records more difficult for researchers.
“This is an all too frequent problem for researchers, and the General Assembly’s ultimate actions as a result of my requests for access and the outcome of a Freedom of Information Commission decision actually made matters worse rather than better,” he wrote.
This session the Government Administration and Elections Committee has raised a bill designed to lift prohibitions on accessing medical records in the state archives 50 years after the death of the person whom the records are based upon. The bill would set a 75-year time limit for withholding other types of documents in the archives.
The bill is based on language from State Librarian Kendall F. Wiggin. The librarian’s legislative proposals said lawmakers often give little consideration to the future historical impact of records when they exempt them from release.
“A uniform time period for accessing records, as is the case in many states and with the National Archives, increases transparency and the agencies’ efficiency. Limiting access to historical records impedes research, historical inquiry and government transparency,” Wiggin’s proposals read.
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information also supports the bill. James Smith, the group’s president, called it “a modest proposal.”
“We shouldn’t be hiding so many historically important records,” he said.