Proving how difficult it is to balance victim privacy with public disclosure Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee passed its own proposal to compete with one drafted by the Government Administration and Elections Committee.
Both bills are rooted in recommendations drafted by a task force that met throughout last year. The panel was created by the legislature as part of a bill that carved out exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The Judiciary Committee passed the legislation by a 27-11 vote on the eve of its deadline to act on legislation.
The Judiciary Committee’s legislation hews more closely to the recommendations of the task force, but in some respects it adds more Freedom of Information restrictions. It creates a special class of public records, which the public could inspect but not copy. Recordings of 911 emergency calls and pictures depicting the bodies of adult homicide victims would be included in this class of records.
Like the task force, the committee places the burden of releasing these records on the person requesting the documents.
But unlike the panel recommendations, the Judiciary Committee’s bill intends to create an absolute ban on the viewing or copying of pictures depicting the bodies of children who have been murdered. Only the consent of the surviving family members would permit the release of those photographs.
Judiciary Co-Chairman Sen. Eric Coleman, who also served on the task force, acknowledged that the committee’s bill was a step in an ongoing process.
“I think it will serve as some basis for negotiation, ultimately, of what the entire General Assembly should act upon in order to protect the sensibilities of the public and primarily the surviving family members of homicide victims,” he said.
By contrast, the Government Administration and Election Committee’s bill leaned more in the direction of public access. GAE stripped restrictions on the release of 911 recordings from its legislation and flipped the burden of proof so it falls on the government to explain why records should not be released.
Sen. Anthony Musto, co-chairman of that committee, said his panel was also seeking a compromise for people who wanted to completely repeal the restrictions passed last year.
Members of the Judiciary Committee recognized there is another proposal in play this year.
“I appreciate the fact that there was a substantially different bill that was passed out of the Government Administration and Elections Committee but I think it’s important for our Judiciary Committee this afternoon to weigh in on this and to put another set of proposals on the table,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said.
Other members were not sure how best to proceed on the difficult issue. Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said sometimes changes in laws have unintended consequences.
Holder-Winfield said he has been told that there’s been an issue with the disclosure of sensitive information “maybe once or twice in the decades we’ve had a Freedom of Information Act.”
“So I sit here, still trying to figure out . . . when we do a balancing act, is this the right thing?” he said. “I am confused about what the right thing to do is. I’m not sure that letting the current law run its course and letting part of that law expire is the right thing. I’m not sure that doing what’s in this proposed substitute bill is the right thing. I’m not sure that the GAE bill is the right thing.”