Open Government

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Originally printed by The Sun News

A pair of bills being debated in the S.C. House illustrate the ongoing tension between those who would open government up for all to see and those who seek to close its doors to pesky outsiders. The first would outrageously clamp the door firmly shut on a wide swath of law enforcement records. The second would helpfully ease the path for citizens who seek to learn more about their government.

The first, H. 4740, would allow police – or any other public agency – to withhold any “information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution.” After its introduction Tuesday, transparency advocates quickly responded with indignation.

“This is a carte blanche to withhold every police report,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association.

We generally don’t get too worked up about recently proposed bills, as the majority will never become law, but this dangerous proposal has more weight behind it than most, with the names of 34 representatives already attached.

Draping a veil of secrecy over all pending investigations, incident reports and police actions until the process is complete would leave the public insupportably in the dark when it comes to the status of current public safety and would represent an outrageous step backward when it comes to the public right to know.

As Rogers said of the sweeping exemptions the bill would grant, “You could drive a truck through these. … The people would totally lose oversight of the police in their communities.”

We can envision all sorts of ways this law could harm the public. Imagine living in an area where all of the houses surrounding yours have been robbed in the past few days. You’d like to know now, not nine months from now when the perpetrators have been caught and are on trial. Imagine that a local politician running for re-election is arrested and charged with murder, rape or any of a dozen other crimes. Voters deserve to have that information before election day, not months after he’s been returned to office. Imagine a worker fired for embezzlement (or a teacher fired for improprieties with students), now looking for a new job. He or she could quickly find more work, secure in the knowledge that the new employer wouldn’t have access to any arrest record until after an investigation was complete.

This terrible proposal would put all of this information beyond timely public scrutiny, not to mention details in other cases that would be forever hidden because a prosecution never occurs and an investigation is kept open.

The pursuit of justice is not something that should be covert and concealed. Secrecy breeds distrust and promotes wild conspiracy theories. Officials who are proud of their actions and decisions have little reason to hide them. We expect secret police in Eastern European autocracies, not the land of the free.

The public deserves to have and should have broad powers to see what its government is up to. Any exemptions to that rule should be narrow and limited, not the indiscriminate generalizations present in this bill. The prevailing instinct should always be in favor of access, while enacting this law would reverse that balance.

Thankfully, not all lawmakers are taking such a dim view of the public’s need for access. The second Freedom of Information bill addressed recently by the House (H. 3235) would make it cheaper and faster for citizens to obtain public documents. The bill, which passed a House subcommittee on Wednesday, would prevent public agencies from overcharging for making copies of documents – a not uncommon strategy for avoiding requests – and set a firm deadline for producing the documents.

Both changes would be welcome and strengthen some of the weaker portions of our current law. The bill now moves on to the full Judiciary committee.