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Privacy Vs. The Right To Know

The days of reckoning following December 14, 2012, led nearly everyone to the same conclusion: We can do better than this. No matter what the issue — gun violence, mental health, school security — there was an overwhelming sense that perhaps something had been overlooked that could have secured for that infamous date the blessedly obscure status of just another Friday.

The search for facts and insights has even extended to the question of how much information is enough in the quest to better understand what happened. A state Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know is due to submit to the General Assembly on January 1 recommendations on how to address the inevitable conflicts between privacy and transparency when it comes to the wrenching crime of homicide. Though the task force has been meeting for months, it has yet to agree on any recommendations.

Meanwhile, privacy concerns were dismissed in the November 26 Superior Court decision that cleared the way for audio recordings of 911 calls made on 12/14 to be released to The Associated Press and, in effect, anyone else who asks for them. The looming January 1 deadline, and the decision to release the 911 recordings, prompted the task force to reconsider action earlier this year by the legislature to shield crime scene photos of homicide victims from public access through Freedom of Information requests. That legislation was prompted in part by the heart-rending testimony of families of victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting. Some Freedom of Information (FOI) advocates on the legislative task force are now having second thoughts about the new privacy protections.

While the panel is sensitive to the violations of personal privacy inherent in materials, including audio recordings, that depict people who are suffering and dying, it also appears to be open to setting up an FOI archive of graphic and disturbing information, photos, and videos that could be viewed by the public, but not publicly disseminated. One member of the panel asserted that the legislature had been inordinately influenced by Sandy Hook families. “We really cannot make public policy seeking the opinions of people who are still legitimately, awfully traumatized by what happened to them,” said James Smith, task force member and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. He added, “In a democracy, you don’t solve problems by hiding information.”

Putting aside that there will never be a time when family survivors won’t be “legitimately” traumatized by homicide, to disregard the pain and pleas of crime victims because their suffering is “still” too acute, and doing it in the name of democracy, seems harsh and … well, undemocratic. Which of the problems that arose in the reckoning of 12/14 will be “solved” by public viewing of graphic crime scene photos? Under this line of logic, wouldn’t even better solutions come out of public viewings of autopsy photos? The longer you think about it, the quicker the argument falls apart.

Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act is rife with sanctioned reasons to hide information, from the architectural drawings of government-owned facilities to the names and addresses of people enrolled in senior center programs. Clearly, the legislature has already concluded that in a democracy, sometimes you hide information to solve problems. Let us concede that one of those problems might be the unnecessary violation of the privacy of crime victims.

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