Connecticut lawmakers are considering several proposals this year that would chip away at the state’s Freedom of Information Act, which ensures public access to government records and information.
Democratic legislators in the state Senate passed two bills this week which, if approved by the House and signed by the governor, would add to a growing list of FOI exemptions used to prevent the release of certain otherwise public information.
One proposal, passed Wednesday, would create a new exemption, allowing state universities to deny the release of research records under the public access law. Another bill, passed Thursday, broadens the scope of an existing exemption allowing agencies to withhold the home addresses of certain employees to now include all public sector workers.
Teaching and Research Records
During a public hearing in March, several professors from the University of Connecticut testified in support of the research exemption with some arguing that the FOI law had enabled individuals to harass public university researchers.
Sen. Mae Flexer, a Windham Democrat who co-chairs the Government Administration and Elections Committee, restated those concerns during a floor debate this week.
“[Public university professors] have faced undue scrutiny and a level of FOI requests that could border on harassing behavior,” Flexer said.
“Our committee did have professors come to us and talk about the way that the FOI law has been used to put them in some questionable and, at times, potentially dangerous circumstances,” she said later.
Opponents of the bill have argued that Connecticut already has separate statutes meant to curb harassment as well as an FOI exemption preventing the release of records posing safety and security risks. Other existing carve-outs include exceptions preventing the disclosure of draft documents and trade secrets.
“If people are actually harassing someone in some way that is threatening or significant, then we have laws for that and if we don’t we should work on those laws,” Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said. “The bill before us, for me, has nothing to do with that … This bill that is before us proposes to hide information from the people of Connecticut.”
A day after advancing the new exemptions for higher education research, the Senate voted to significantly expand a carve out which had previously prevented the disclosure of the residential addresses of certain public employees like judges, police officers, correction officers, and Department of Children and Families employees among others. The bill extends that exemption to include all public sector workers.
Proponents, including public employee labor unions, argue the change is necessary in light of increased threats and harassment of government employees. During a floor debate, Flexer questioned the public purpose of releasing residential addresses.
“Someone should not have their personal home address disclosed simply because they happen to work for a public agency whereas, if they did the same role for a private entity, their personal residential home address would not be disclosed,” she said.
The change was opposed by the chamber’s Republican members as well as two Democrats: Sens. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Rick Lopes, D-New Britain. Lopes said the state should be expanding the public access law rather than adding more exemptions. Osten called the bill “a step too far.”
“I don’t see that this is something we should be doing,” Osten said. “I personally think that this is too far a reach for us to do and I am completely struggling with us exempting the release of these addresses.”
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said the legislature had been considering FOI exemptions with increasing frequency.
“So here we are again and we’re looking to exempt from the public spotlight even more information,” he said.
Both bills will now move to the House for consideration during the remaining days before the session concludes on June 7.
A third Freedom of Information Act proposal, awaiting action on the Senate calendar, would expand the scope of content that must be redacted from police body camera footage to include nudity and the inside of private residences. It also would allow agencies to charge up to $100 per hour for time spent redacting camera footage.