Posts Tagged ‘American Civil Liberties Union’

New law blocks Conn. inmates from accessing guard files

June 8, 2010

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.

Transparency bill seeks to close loopholes in FOA

March 28, 2010

By Mike Lange, executive director, Maine Press Association

It’s rare when you see two Maine organizations with different political philosophies agree on anything.

But when the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and the liberal-leaning Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union shared a podium recently to endorse the “Time for Transparency Act,” people took notice.

The major thrust of the proposed bill is to close a major loophole in Maine’s Freedom of Access law that allows public agencies to indefinitely postpone — or effectively ignore — requests for information.

Or, as Chris Cinquemani of the MHPC explains, “Transparency without deadlines is not transparency at all. The government puts deadlines on taxpayers and the public. It’s time government was held to that same standard.”

Here’s the scenario: I walk into a school superintendent’s office and request a copy of his contract, even noting that personal data — such as Social Security numbers — can legally be redacted.

 The office staff says that no one is available to comply with the request, but please come back later. So I do — eight or ten times. They’re hoping that I finally give up and fade away.

I won’t give up, and I’ll probably write a story about the district’s sandbagging. But the average Joe or Josephine on the street doesn’t have the same persistent traits of a journalist.

The bill not only makes the beat reporter’s job easier, but enhances everyone’s rights.

The Time for Transparency Bill is a work in progress, not a final document. The Maine Press Association will be working with the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, the Right to Know Advisory Committee and other groups to fine-tune the language.  Nevertheless, I credit the MHPC for getting the ball rolling, so to speak.

There’s a saying that justice delayed is justice denied. The public’s right to have legal access to open records is no different.
 
Mike Lange can be reached at mainepress@hotmail.com.