New law blocks Conn. inmates from accessing guard files

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By James H. Smith, executive editor, The Bristol Press and New Britain Herald

Both houses of the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation by unanimous acclimation and Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed it into law last week preventing inmates from reading the personnel records of prison guards. 

It is a wholly unnecessary law.

The state Department of Correction, Connecticut’s most secretive agency, did not want inmates having access to guards’ personnel files. Department spokesmen pitched it as inmates after “personal” files. They waned to protect the home addresses of guards. Connecticut state law already protects the home addresses of virtually every state public employee — a no doubt unconstitutional statute, given a recent ruling by a federal judge in Florida.

But Connecticut public officials, when it comes to transparency and open government, too often opt for hiding information.

The state Freedom of Information Commission had lobbied against this most recent piece of legislation as both redundant and against the spirit of open government, but not one politician listened.

Meanwhile in Florida, state and Tallahassee authorities agreed to pay $60,000 in damages and legal fees to Robert Brayshaw and his lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. Brayshaw, who was arrested and briefly jailed for posting a local police officer’s home address on a cop-rating website, said last week his ordeal was “completely crazy.”

“Just because I posted it, I got arrested. It wasn’t like it was the Pentagon Papers,” Brayshaw, a 35-year-old Tallahassee man, told Wired.com. Now unemployed, he said it has been difficult to get a job because of his 2008 arrest. He spent nearly three hours in jail and was prosecuted under a 1972 statute making it unlawful to publish personally identifying information of a police officer.

Brayshaw’s comments came after the deadline passed for Florida to appeal a federal judge’s decision that declared the First Amendment trumped Florida’s law protecting the privacy of police officers.

U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak in Tallahassee ruled the First Amendment does not protect “true threats, fighting words, incitements to imminent lawless action, and classes of lewd and obscene speech.” But publishing an officer’s phone number and address, he said, “is not in itself a threat or serious expression of an intent to commit an unlawful act of violence . . . The release of personal information, even with the intent to intimidate, is not per se a true threat . . . Rather, disclosing and publishing information obtained elsewhere is precisely the kind of speech that the First Amendment protects.”

 Brayshaw said the officer “basically had her information listed publicly in the phone book.” He had a beef with the officer regarding a trespassing flap in which he was not charged.

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