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Monday, March 17, 2008

AP Sunshine Week Story: States Rolling Back Access

The AP's contribution to Sunshine Week is an excellent look at the national picture:

Some things your government doesn’t have to tell you about:

* The safety plan at your child’s school, if you live in Iowa.

* Medication errors at your grandparent’s nursing home in North Carolina.

* Disciplinary actions against Indiana state employees.

States have steadily limited the public’s access to government information since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a new Associated Press analysis of laws in all 50 states has found. Legislatures have passed more than 1,000 laws changing access to information, approving more than twice as many measures that restrict information as laws that open government books.

The horror of the attacks spurred a wholesale re-examination of information that could put the country in danger, and the state actions roughly mirror those on the federal level. Federal agencies responded by shutting down Web sites, pulling telephone directories and rethinking everything from dam blueprints to historical records.

In statehouse battles, the issue has pitted advocates of government openness — including journalists and civil liberties groups — against lawmakers and others who worry that public information could be misused, whether it’s by terrorists or by computer hackers hoping to use your credit cards. Security concerns typically won out.

The AP discovered a clear trend from the Sept. 11 attacks through legislative work that ended last year: States passed 616 laws that restricted access — to government records, databases, meetings and more — and 284 laws that loosened access. Another 123 laws had either a neutral or mixed effect, the AP found.

“What these open government laws do is break down that wall of government secrecy so that everybody knows what’s going on,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporter Committee for Freedom of the Press. “A democracy can only function if we have information. You can only have oversight of government if you have information.”

Associated Press reporters in every state, often with help from their local press associations, tracked the government access bills introduced since the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon were hit by hijacked planes.

In every state, reporters tallied bills that were proposed each year, and then examined the laws that passed. They assessed the impact of each new measure and rated it as loosening existing limits on public access to government information, restricting the limits, or neutral.

While fear of another terrorist attack drove many new proposals, it wasn’t the only motivator. Concerns about identity theft, medical privacy and the vulnerability of computerized records have sparked many pieces of legislation, too.

Lawmakers say they are recalibrating the balance between information that could be used against society and what society at large needs to know.

“Since Sept. 11, we’re looking at information like plans for our nuclear plants, the records of our bridges and transportation systems. All of the critical information that is out there that we don’t necessarily want to put in the hands of a terrorist,” said New York state Sen. Nick Spano, a Republican who had proposed tightening legislation soon after the attacks.

“It’s a very difficult balance between the public’s right to know and the public’s right to security,” Spano said. A different security measure ultimately became law, limiting access to information about infrastructure from airports to cellular phone systems. Last year, Spano authored a law that strengthened public access by setting a strict deadline for state agencies to respond to requests for information.

The give and take of a legislature usually forces changes to such bills — like a measure proposed last year in Oklahoma, where freshman state Sen. Charles Wyrick, a Democrat, sought to completely exempt the state’s new Department of Homeland Security from the Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act.

“I don’t know why all of a sudden the holy grail of security and safety is now closing records,” Mark Thomas, head of the Oklahoma Press Association, said after the bill was introduced. “It seems to me we would be more secure if we knew what was going on around us. ... Apparently there are those in government who want to close all these records and say, ‘We’ll keep you safe, trust us.’”

Negotiations brought a compromise. The law that passed allowed the department to keep communications between the agency and the federal government confidential, along with security plans for private businesses.

“We had to fight that out, and basically it ended up being an equal distribution of unhappiness,” Thomas said.

Still, the numerical data shows which side got more out of negotiations overall: The AP analysis of 1,023 new laws dealing with public access to government information found that more than 60 percent closed access. Just over a quarter created new avenues of access. The rest had a neutral effect, often through technical changes to existing laws.

Those laws emerged from just over 3,500 bills. Often, several legislators interested in a topic will each introduce a bill knowing that only one is likely to pass. In some states, the same legislation is introduced in both House and Senate chambers to speed action and build support.

Across more than four years, 36 states passed more restrictive laws than laws that loosened access; seven states passed more laws that eased barriers to access; seven states passed equal numbers. The analysis did not attempt to quantify the impact of larger, sweeping laws versus smaller modifications.

The AP analysis also did not study legislation prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, though observers say the changes have been obvious.

“What we see nationwide is states really backing away from their open access laws,” said Fred H. Cate, an Indiana University law professor who studies privacy and technology. Security threats are real — but some lawmakers are just “taking advantage of the public security tide,” he said.

More here.

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