The following blog post is one of several that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Daniel J. Klau | NEFAC, CCFOI
This week is Sunshine Week — a national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government. Government transparency and democracy go hand-in-hand. As federal court judge Damon Keith wrote about secret deportation hearings following the 9/11 attacks, “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”
As one of the leaders of the open government community in Connecticut, I’m pleased to report that public resistance to efforts to curtail access to government records and meetings in the Nutmeg State remains strong.
That strength will be sorely tested this year, however, as elected officials continue to introduce legislation that would limit the public’s rights under the state Freedom of Information Act.
One of the most significant pieces of troubling legislation introduced in the Connecticut General Assembly earlier this year, HB 5173, would seriously restrict access to voter registration records. It would also impose criminal penalties on individuals who gain access to those records and distribute them to third parties.
Voter registration records have long been public. The bill, which originated with Connecticut’s secretary of the state, is a gross overreaction to President Trump’s “voter fraud” commission. The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and the ACLU of Connecticut oppose this legislation.
The General Assembly will also consider HB 5175 which would impose significant fees ($125) for filing an appeal under the state FOIA. A similar bill was proposed, and defeated, last year, only to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes this year.
The bill’s objective is one to which CCFOI and other open government advocates in Connecticut are sympathetic: to reduce the number of truly vexatious FOIA appeals filed each year. But the onerous filing fee is the wrong response to this concern. CCFOI is working with members of the General Assembly to draft legislation that would address the problem of vexatious FOIA appeals without imposing significant financial burdens on members of the public.
CCFOI is also working with members of the General Assembly who are deeply distressed by a decision to fundamentally change the way CT-N — Connecticut’s version of C-SPAN — operates. For more than two decades, a non-partisan vendor has operated CT-N and provided neutral, unbiased television and web-based coverage of important proceedings in all three branches of state government.
Last spring, however, leaders of the General Assembly terminated the vendor contract and decided to have employees of the General Assembly operate CT-N. This change has raised serious concerns that CT-N will become little more than a propaganda arm of the General Assembly. CCFOI is working with two legislators who intend to introduce legislation to reverse this decision and once again vest editorial control over CT-N in a neutral body.
Finally, members of CCFOI are involved with a program developed by the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government to help educate high school and college students about the importance of the First Amendment and freedom of information. CCFOI and CFOG are drawing on their membership, particularly journalists and lawyers, to speak at high schools, colleges and other public venues on this critically important topic.
When Connecticut Gov. Ella T. Grasso signed the state FOIA into law in 1975, she created one of the strongest open government laws in the country. During Sunshine Week, open government organizations in Connecticut will work hard to keep Ella’s dream of a vibrant FOIA alive and well.
Daniel J. Klau is a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
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.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.