FOIA Freedom of Information Act book on a desk
Credit: Vitalii Vodolazskyi / Shutterstock
Susan Campbell

A bill that would have limited information available through state Freedom of Information requests has died in the Connecticut House of Representatives, and that is a good thing.

The bill, Senate Bill 1157, would have protected from disclosure the home addresses of state and municipal employees in an attempt, from public testimony, to make it a little more challenging to go to the homes of those employees and harass them. 

It may seem like a small thing to keep those addresses private, but it isn’t.

With all due respect to the bill’s supporters in the state Senate, where the bill passed, 21-13, this was a bad idea. When it comes to the government – state, local, federal – efforts to quell information generally run counter to the workings of democracy, and that’s not just for journalists who seek to investigate potential political or judicial malfeasance. FOIA laws are always subject to tweaking, but the more we protect the free flow of information, the better we can operate.

(And while we’re talking about transparency? I have family members who are state employees. We disagreed on this bill.)

Before we limit the kind of information available through FOIA requests, let’s consider that state and municipal employees are, as Rep. Christine Carpino, R-Cromwell, pointed out, public servants. That should not imply that harassment or unwanted off-duty dealings with irate members of the public should be part of their lives, but being paid by public funds requires a little extra from public employees. In addition, the information the bill sought to keep from the public – home addresses – is readily available online already.

But here’s the deeper issue: FOIA laws vary from state to state, and each year, states restrict a little more of the information that is available to the public. It’s a dangerous trend that’s picked up speed over the last few years. If information is power, then we should remind ourselves that bad actors are quick to try to control the release of information.

In January, a blockbuster ProPublica report (produced for Verite) found that nearly half of all Louisiana sheriffs were violating the state’s public records laws. That report was overshadowed when ProPublica later reported that Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas had been receiving undisclosed gifts from Harlan Crow, a wealthy Texas GOP donor, for years. That latter report set off a slew of reporting that has shaken the public’s trust in the highest court in the land.

See what can happen in the dark?

Last month, Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor who is running for president, signed a bill that keeps secret state travel recordspast and present. The possibility for abuse in the Sunshine State just increased exponentially. Where is Gov. DeSantis going and who is paying for his trips? Wouldn’t Florida voters want to know?

In this recent legislative session, Texas legislators have failed to act on a bill that would make public law enforcement records even if a person has not been convicted or if that person received probation. There, too, advocates say the law was created to protect people’s privacy, but that has allowed some agencies to withhold information around crimes where people have died or been killed while in police custody.

Louisville, Ky., law enforcement officials balked at releasing the records of the police shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in March 2020. Ms. Taylor was in her apartment when police used a battering ram to break in and then shot her five times. Nationwide protests and persistence on the part of local media (including the Louisville Courier-Journal) forced the issue, and four current and former police officers have been charged.

More attempts to limit the public’s access to information have occurred in states such as Arkansas, and these mostly go unremarked upon because we don’t know what we don’t know, and unless we are actively seeking certain information, we don’t know what’s locked in a box somewhere. The Virginia Mercury, a nonprofit online news outlet, now runs an FOIA Friday feature that compiles what’s been withheld or disclosed by state officials (including, most recently, an independent investigation into how Loudon County Public Schools handled two 2021 sexual assault cases allegedly perpetrated by a student).

If you trace them back, every one of these legislative moves to keep information hidden started with something small, a carve-out, say, where the stated intention was to safeguard or protect the privacy of well-meaning people. We can argue about the definition of privacy in a digital age from now until the cows come home, but when it comes to the government, as cliched as it may seem, we have a right to know.

Author of "Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood," "Tempest Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker," and "Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl." Find more at

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