The Connecticut General Assembly’s annual session is ending Wednesday as it began, with a focus on the grieving families of Newtown, who pleaded for legislation that might give solace. And once again, lawmakers found it impossible to deny them.
In the first hours of the final day of the 2013 session, the Senate and House quickly voted to close public access to police photographs of the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School and, at least temporarily, an audio account made by police as they stepped among the 20 dead children and six educators.
The legislation applies to all homicides. It is a major new exemption to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a 40-year-old monument to transparency in government, a simple concept grown complicated in a digital age when everyone with a smart phone or a laptop can be a publisher.
The Senate passed the bill, 33-2. The House quickly followed with a vote of 130-2. The dissenters were Sens. Edward Meyer of Guilford and Anthony Musto of Trumbull and Reps. Stephen Dargan of West Haven and Peter Tercyak of New Britain, all Democrats.
None of them spoke on the floor, but Tercyak grew emotional speaking to reporters after the vote, saying such a dramatic limit on the public’s right to know should have been considered for months, as were the gun-control measures adopted in April.
“Open government’s the bedrock, sorry,” Tercyak said. “Some principles are always there, and the reason people can trust our government and police departments is because we don’t have secrets.”
His voice broke.
“It’s never easy. I don’t know that it’s ever harder than this,” he said. “But that’s why we do it. That’s what we’re about.”
Tapes of 9-1-1 calls will remain public records.
The bill creates a task force to search for a balance between victim privacy and the public’s right to know.
“Thirty years ago, this wouldn’t be an issue,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, who was a small-town radio reporter before studying the law at Washington and Lee University and politics in Hartford.
No newspaper would publish photos of children and women mutilated by the high-volume and high-velocity rounds of an AR-15 rifle. And even if one did, its reach would be finite, limited by a press run.
On the Internet, those photographs would live forever, go everywhere. Two parents told legislators the pictures effectively would pry open their child’s coffin, exposing disfiguring wounds, haunting them.
And so the web, the most efficient and quickest way ever devised to transmit information, became the rationale to withhold photographs taken by public officials in a public place performing a public duty.
“This has been a wrenching process,” Williams said.
Meyer, a former federal prosecutor, urged his colleagues in private conversations to reject the bill. He carried into the chamber a folder of iconic photographs of violent incidents that changed American public opinion, including the image of a naked girl running down a Vietnamese highway, her body burned by napalm.
He remained silent during the debate, making his only statement by casting a no vote.
“We’ve been asked to be respectful of the families,” he said.
Some members of the Senate had sought a narrower bill, one that would have applied only to Sandy Hook. Members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus objected to the special treatment, even while expressing sympathy for the Newtown families. They said every family of a homicide victim should be given the same consideration.
Rep. Angel Arce, D-Hartford, was a convincing voice in negotiations, others said. A security video of his father being struck by a hit-and-run driver in Hartford in 2008 was broadcast widely and still pops up on television and the Internet, he said.
“Trust me when I tell you if these kind of picture are posted, it’s going to change their lives,” Arce said of the families. “I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody didn’t end up in the hospital with major depression. It happened to my family.”
Arce said his mother still doesn’t watch television. The video clip of his father flying after being struck was aired as recently as two weeks ago, he said.
“They keep showing that thing, any little thing that has to do with motor vehicles,” he said.
His niece called him Tuesday, upset over a video posted on Facebook of a motorcyclist who plunged through the side window of a cab in Hartford. She posted a message asking that the video be taken down in deference to the motorcyclist’s family.
Arce said he expects the video already has gone viral, never to be retrieved.
Williams took the floor of the Senate after 1 a.m. to explain the compromise bill negotiated over recent days with people like Arce, who watched.
In the end, the legislators settled on a broad exemption covering any video or photograph “to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim’s surviving family members.”
Seated in the chamber behind Williams were Newtown family members, some of the same mothers and fathers who successfully lobbied for gun control and watched Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sign the bipartisan measure into law.
“We have tried our best as Democrats and Republicans to work together to protect the interests of these families, these parents, these relatives sitting behind me. And at the same time honoring our tradition as a free and open democracy,” Williams said.
He yielded to Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, his opponent on most things, his partner on issues relating to Newtown.
“This is a narrow protection offered in this bill, and it is not unusual or novel,” said McKinney, whose district includes Newtown. The bill follows privacy protections for crime victim in the federal Freedom of Information Act and reflects the similar protections in English common law, McKinney said.
He thanked his colleagues in the Senate and House and Malloy, the Democrat he is considering opposing in 2014, for coming together one more time for Newtown. He singled out Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff, who stood in the chamber. Ojakian was a party to the negotiations.
Malloy promised days ago to sign an FOI exemption. He said Wednesday in a statement: “Those who lose loved ones to violence have a right to protect themselves against further anguish.”
The House debate was as brief. The Newtown families who watched in the Senate sat in the well of the House.
When the final vote was tallied, House members stood and waited quietly, giving the relatives time to leave. Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe, whose district includes part of Newtown, walked over and briefly spoke to them.
Arce shook hands with other legislators.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, waited for House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, to step down from the dais. They hugged, nodded to each other and joined the silent procession of tired legislators exiting the House.
The family members declined comment. Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was among the victims, said they were too exhausted to take questions.