CCFOI Testifies to Conn. General Assembly About Freedom of Information Legislation

The New England First Amendment Coalition‘s James H. Smith provided testimony this week to the Connecticut General Assembly Government, Administration and Elections Committee, which is considering three bills of First Amendment and right-to-know interest. Smith joined NEFAC’s Board of Directors last year and is currently the president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. He testified on behalf of the CCFOI.

The bills, which are summarized below with excerpts of Smith’s testimony, involve the release of information related to criminal investigations, the extension of term limits for commissioners of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, and the online publication of voter registration data.

H.B. 6746 | AN ACT EXTENDING THE TERMS OF CERTAIN MEMBERS OF THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION | The purpose of this bill is to extend the terms of members of the Freedom of Information Commission appointed by the legislative leaders from two years to four years.

There is a reason the terms of judges aren’t conterminous with that of a legislature – or even the governor who appointed them. It takes time to develop the particular expertise required to do a good job and the appointees to an independent administrative adjudicator position should not appear to be beholden to the politicians who initially appoint them for future reappointment.

At the very least, two-year terms for FOI commissioners should be extended to four years.

H.B. 6750 | AN ACT EXPANDING THE REQUIREMENT FOR DISCLOSURE OF ARREST RECORDS DURING A PENDING PROSECUTION UNDER THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT | The purpose of this bill is to reverse the recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision in Commissioner of Public Safety v. FOIC which concluded that law enforcement agencies’ disclosure obligations under the Freedom of Information Act during pending prosecutions are governed only by section 1-215 of the general statutes.

H.B. 6750 makes clear that “records of an arrest” — including basic blotter information — must always be released following an arrest. But a blanket exemption covering all documents except “police blotter” or “record of arrest” information while a prosecution is pending is contrary to the public interest.

This legislation makes clear that other records concerning police investigations must be disclosed unless they fall within 1-210(b)(3), the so-called eight law enforcement exemptions, which include protecting certain information about a pending case if that information is prejudicial to the case. The courts have ruled that an evidentiary hearing is required to show that information is prejudicial.

Because government gives its law enforcement agencies monopoly power over the use of force and incarceration, they pose one of the greatest threats to a democratic form of government, if and when that power is misused or abused. Consequently, a meaningful freedom of information law must provide the greatest measure of transparency.

S.B. 27 | AN ACT PROHIBITING THE INTERNET PUBLICATION OF VOTER INFORMATION | The purpose of this bill is to protect voter privacy.

The legislation is quite simply an unconstitutional prior restraint on the press in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 5 of the Connecticut Constitution: “No law shall ever be passed to curtail or restrain the liberty of speech or of the press.”

In our democracy only a voter’s ballot is secret. Everything else about American voting, whether for dog catcher or for president, is and must remain open if we are to remain a democratic society.

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