The silence has been deafening. Curiously so. As state lawmakers continue to hack away at Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, the response from members of the public and the news media has been confounding passivity.
The curtain is threatening to come down on the state’s groundbreaking law, enacted in 1975, which opened up the inner workings of government — state and municipal — for all to see. The state’s FOIA became the model upon which other states and nations promoted public access and government transparency.
But now Connecticut’s law is in grave danger. Where once there were five explicit exemptions to the FOIA there are now 28 and counting. At least a half-dozen anti-FOIA bills have been approved by legislative committees and are due to be voted upon by the House and the Senate.
The leaders of both chambers, be they Democratic or Republican, should not allow that to happen. They should muster the fortitude to say “Enough. We will not destroy the public’s right to know in this Capitol, the building that belongs to the people.”
The FOIA exemptions under consideration cover a wide range of topics, from academic research to whistleblower complaints to employee addresses. Nearly every one of these bills is unnecessary because it amounts to draconian overreach. Nearly every one of these bills is a red herring or provides a false sense of security because existing exemptions already apply or the information is readily available to anyone with a computer and a flea’s understanding of technology.
For example, two bills would shield the addresses of large group of state and local officials, adding to an already lengthy list of employees whose addresses have been exempted from disclosure. This is window dressing disguised as privacy rights. Suggesting that addresses can somehow be hidden from view is to believe that Alexa isn’t eavesdropping on your conversations or that cellphone apps aren’t tracking where you ate lunch. A simple Google search will not only turn up a person’s address but a wealth of other information, such as family members, work history, political affiliation, age and, for a small fee, criminal history. So what exactly is being accomplished here?
Even more damaging is the state’s granting of the right to supersede the FOIA in its contracts with state employee unions. This has had the insidious effect of concealing information about wrongdoing in the ranks of public officials. Examples abound, such as student complaints of sexual misconduct against university professors, cover-ups of misbehavior by state police, disciplinary measures and agency legal settlements. Government transparency should not be a bargaining chip in contract negotiations.
Another bill would conceal academic research — ill-defined in the proposal — conducted by publicly-funded employees at publicly-funded colleges and universities. So presumably, if a professor and his or her students analyzed racial profiling in Connecticut, the findings of their study would be unavailable to the public and corrective action — if warranted — could not be undertaken.
Still another bill could make disclosure of whistleblower complaints exempt from the FOIA. The identities of whistleblowers are already exempt under state law. But this bill takes the additional step of banning from public view background information about alleged corruption and fraud in state agencies. Concealing information about wrongdoing in state government is anathema to maintaining a healthy and vibrant democracy.
A proposal that has legislative support would create new exemptions regarding the information that police officers must make public when using body cameras, including the inside of a private residence. But what if such a recording were to capture a crime in progress? As the bill is written, it is unclear what portions of a recording would be made available in the event of a legitimate public interest.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase the maximum penalty for certain violations of the FOIA and permit the Freedom of Information Commission to seek judicial relief for public agency misconduct. How ironic considering all of the FOIA exemptions now before the House and Senate.
There’s still time for members of the public and news media to protest the damage that’s about to be done to their right-to-know. Their voices need to be heard.
Michele Jacklin is the Legislative Co-Chair of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.