Senate Bill 39 Would Reverse Recent Court Decision, Reinstate an ‘Environment of Secrecy’
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Note: NEFAC and other advocates followed up this testimony with a joint letter on Jan. 25 opposing an amendment to SB 39 that the groups called “problematic” and “harmful to government transparency.” Read that letter here.
The New England First Amendment Coalition recently testified on proposed legislation in New Hampshire that could severely limit the public’s right to access police records.
Senate Bill 39 intends to exempt police personnel files, internal investigations and other law enforcement records from the New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law.
If made law, the bill would overturn a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision — Seacoast Newspapers, Inc. v. City of Portsmouth — that ruled such documents were not categorically exempt under the public records statute.
Senate Bill 39 is an attempt at “effectively reinstating the environment of secrecy that prevailed prior to that decision, but only as applied to police officers,” testified attorney Richard C. Gagliuso on Jan. 19 to the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Seacoast Newspapers case “reaffirmed the public policy in favor of open government enshrined in the Right-to-Know Law since its enactment in the 1960s,” he explained.
Gagliuso, a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors, represented Seacoast Newspapers in the state Supreme Court case last year. He testified on behalf of NEFAC and the New Hampshire Press Association submitting written comments as well as providing oral testimony.
With respect to accessing certain records like public employee personnel, investigatory and disciplinary records, Gagliuso explained, the Right-to-Know Law avoids making a categorical declaration in favor of a case-by-case balancing approach.
Senate Bill 39 would forego this careful analysis in favor of “a broad, all-encompassing rule that exalts secrecy over transparency,” he said.
“I understand why some law enforcement officers may wish to return to the days when their conduct, good or bad, was a matter between them and their immediate superiors,” Gagliuso said. “But the Right-to-Know Law was never intended to cast a shroud over their conduct, and the law as it existed previously was never sound policy.”
For more information about the Seacoast Newspapers decision and recent changes to the New Hampshire Right to Know Law, please watch this webinar featuring Gagliuso and attorney Gregory V. Sullivan, also a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors.
NEFAC is the leading advocate for First Amendment freedoms and open government in New England. It fights to protect press rights and promote transparency throughout the six-state region.
To help keep law enforcement officers accountable, for example, NEFAC recently recommended transparency measures in New Hampshire and Connecticut, advocated for the release of use-of-force policies, demanded more oversight of police in Vermont, and publicly discussed the role of transparency in policing the police.
Learn more about how NEFAC is helping to keep law enforcement officers accountable here.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
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Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Boston Globe, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.