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Special records access for media? No thanks

Post by Kim Bradford on Feb. 17, 2010 at 7:16 pm with No Comments »
February 17, 2010 8:01 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

A curious thing is happening in the state Legislature. It seems lawmakers believe they can pick off public disclosure supporters by granting some of them special privileges to information.

Twice now, legislators have answered concerns about denying access to public records by establishing a new class of citizens: members of the news media.

It happened first with a measure that would have made the footage caught by transit security cameras off limits to the public.
Public outrage over a damning video of security guards watching a 15-year-old get beat and stomped in Seattle’s transit tunnel last month eventually killed the bill. But before it died, senators tried to salvage it by giving news reporters an exception not available to the general public.

The idea apparently caught on in other chamber. The House, catching flack for a measure that would block disclosure of information about criminal justice agencies’ employees, attempted to silence critics with an amendment.

House Bill 1317 is bad any which way the Legislature slices it. The legislation purports to protect police officers’ personal safety in the wake of six cop killings. It makes promises it can’t deliver.

Thugs bent on harassing members of law enforcement don’t file public disclosure requests. They don’t have to. All the information they could conceivably want is available to them with a few clicks online.

HB 1317 wouldn’t change any of that. It would merely prevent citizens from getting relatively innocuous information – an employee’s official photograph and their month and year of birth – from the employee’s personnel file.

The House, before passing the bill unanimously last week, conceded the news media’s argument that personnel files are vital tools in holding law enforcement agencies accountable. But the representatives’ remedy – to preserve access only for reporters – presumes that a news story should have greater priority than, say, a citizen’s effort to identify an officer who abused his authority.

A fundamental principle of Washington’s public disclosure laws is that agencies don’t discriminate among requesters. Members of the news media – be they newspaper reporters, TV producers, bloggers, even editorial writers – are no more or less deserving of public records than other citizens.

To legislate otherwise would be to declare millions of Washingtonians second-class citizens.

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