States Declare Open Season On Public Access

By: - March 1, 2002 12:00 am

Lawmakers in 17 states have proposed rules to limit access to public records in the name of national security. State leaders have proposed denying public access to information about utilities, closing meetings on homeland security, blocking access to blueprints of public buildings, and shutting down Web sites about chemical and hazardous substance storage.

States that have considered limiting records since September include California, Florida, Illinois, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

Even before terrorists attacked, state lawmakers were increasingly trying to put records out of public reach. (See story, “State Sunshine Laws Under Attack,, May 24, 2001)

Concerns about personal privacy used to be the rallying cry for locking up documents, but now officials are using the threat of terrorism to justify withholding government information.

For example, Missouri Sen. Roseann Bentley, R-Springfield, sponsored a bill OK’d by the Senate in February to close access to documents about public utilities.

“In light of the new security demands on our nation, and the threats that water plants and electrical plants may be targets, the utility should be able to keep the security precautions private,” Bentley said. “Our water system in Springfield is an open lake. I don’t want to frighten people, but it’s very susceptible to something being put in that water.”

New Jersey officials in October removed Web pages listing the hazardous chemicals stored at businesses throughout the state as well as maps showing the state’s reservoirs. In January, acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco signed an open records law that expands access to most documents but put limits on information about public building security.

Some press associations have shrugged at proposed restrictions and say troubled times call for more understanding about secrecy.

John O’Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, which represents the state’s newspapers, said some narrowly-written measures “are actually pretty logical in light of recent events. We have to judge things a little differently than we did on Sept. 10. If you talk to most people, they have a whole new sense of privacy and security.”

In some cases, lawmakers are using security as a convenient excuse for withholding information, according to open records advocates who oppose the measures.

“There’s an assumption that secrecy guarantees security. That’s where I get off the bus,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at Missouri School of Journalism. “For people to know what government officials are doing and to act responsibly in the ballot box, we need full access to information.”

Other examples of state officials stepping up efforts to block access to records since Sept. 11 include:

  • New York Gov. George Pataki recently ordered state agencies to limit information posted on Web sites to prevent terrorists from seeing maps of electrical grids and reservoirs. The New York Senate is considering a bill to exempt technical and structural records such as maps and infrastructure information from open records laws.
  • In Idaho, state senators killed a bill in February that would have let judges seal government records now open to the public. Another bill on the governor’s desk would restrict public access to building or infrastructure records when releasing them would threaten public safety.
  • After talks with journalism organizations, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening changed a bill that would prevent access to public records whose inspection would jeopardize public safety. The rewritten bill requires government officials to show why they should not release public records.
  • Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed bills in December that close public records dealing with drug stockpiles and security plans for state buildings.
  • Legislation passed by the Michigan House in February would restrict access to structural diagrams and emergency response plans.
  • A Minnesota House panel in February passed a bill allowing closure of public meetings for discussion of security.
  • An Illinois House panel passed a bill in January to allow closed meetings and records on issues relating to homeland security. The Illinois Press Association said first drafts of the bill were overly broad but doesn’t plan to fight the revised version.

Beth Bennett, government affairs manager for the Illinois Press Association, said, “We think it’s a good day when we can just hold the line, and the Freedom of Information Act is not compromised. If it sounds like I’m cynical, it’s because I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’m totally cynical. The reason we are neutral on the bill is that the language they’re trying to add is already covered under our Freedom of Information Act.”

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