Pictures of Osama bin Laden’s corpse to remain secret, judges say

28 05 2013

If you find pictures purporting to be those of Osama bin Laden’s body after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, they’re most likely frauds.

The government is not letting anyone in the public see them.

A three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the government was justified in denying Freedom of Information Act requests for the photos and videos taken after the raid, including bin Laden’s burial at sea, because it would endanger national security. The court found that the Defense Department and the CIA properly classified the documents as private.

“This is not a case in which the declarants are making predictions about the consequences of releasing any images,” the court wrote. “Rather, they are predicting the consequences of releasing an extraordinary set of images, ones that depict American military personnel burying the founder and leader of [al-Qauida].”

Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group, requested the pictures shortly after President Barrack Obama announced that commandos killed bin Laden in his Abbottabad, Pakistan, hideout, ending a manhunt that stretched out almost 10 years. The group sought the pictures and videos in order to complete the public record of the demise of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

But the court accepted the government’s position that releasing the photos and videos would enflame al-Qaida and other extremists, possibly putting Americans at risk. It noted the effect Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had on radicals. The government also warned that releasing the images used to identify bin Laden through facial-recognition software could reveal intelligence sources or methods.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton denounced the decision as “craven” and said the group is weighing its next legal steps.

“The courts need to stop rubber-stamping this administration’s improper secrecy,” Fitton said. “There is no provision in the Freedom of Information Act that allows documents to be kept secret because their release might offend our terrorist enemies.”

h/t to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

 





bustedmugshots.com owner suing Salt Lake County for jail booking pictures

23 05 2013

The owner of a mug-shot website wants a judge to decide on whether Salt Lake County can invoke copyright to withhold booking photos.

As Mike Gorrell reports, Kyle Prall, owner of bustedmugshots.com, is going to court to overturn the county’s denial of his Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) request for 1,388 mug shots taken between Jan. 11 and Jan. 27. The county claimed the pictures were classified as protected records under the federal Copyright Act.

The move is an effort by the county to keep the mug shots off websites that publish the pictures, only removing them if the person pictured pays a fee. Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder has also removed the pictures from the jail’s website, requiring those who seek them to file a GRAMA request.

Prall’s site offers to remove pictures for free for those who have been acquitted or not charged, while charging others at least $98 to take down their pictures.

Prall argues that if allowed to stand, the copyright argument could be used to undermine open-government laws.”

Federal copyright law also states that government cannot claim copyright for any documents it creates.

Prall claims the county’s move also flies in the face of GRAMA by allowing government to withhold records based on how they plan to use the documents. GRAMA does not look at the requester’s intent when weighing whether a record should be released.

County Council Chairman Steve DeBry declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.





Utah media fighting attempt to close hearing in soccer referee Ricardo Portillo’s death

15 05 2013

The Associated Press reports that lawyers for the teen accused of killing a soccer referee want the case closed.

The lawyers requested the order after a Salt Lake City television station asked for permission to film in the juvenile courtroom during the teen’s initial appearance. The teen is charged with homicide by assault after he punched referee Ricardo Portillo in the head after Portillo issued him a yellow-card warning at an April soccer game.

Portillo died a week later as a result of the injury.

A new court rule allows TV cameras in courtrooms for hearings. The rule does allow the judge to deny TV coverage in sensitive cases or where protected testimony — from children or sexual-assault victims — is given.

But the lawyers for the teen, who is not being named by most Utah news outlets because he’s only charged as a juvenile at this time, are going further than that. They want the judge to bar any reporting on the hearing.

The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, KSL, KUTV, KTVX and FOX 13 have joined together to challenge the order.

Austin Ritter, an attorney with Parr, Brown, Gee and Loveless, argues that closing the meeting goes beyond the authority of the judge.

And court decisions indicate that such a closure may be unconstitutional. In the 1986 Press Enterprise vs Superior Court decision, the Supreme Court ruled that there is a First Amendment right for journalists and the public to attend court hearings.

The court found that a courtroom could only be closed under extraordinary circumstances, and there was no other way to preserve the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The court noted that the fair-trial right can be preserved when jurors are selected, screening out those who have become biased because of media coverage.

The Supreme Court has also frowned on efforts to stop reporters from publishing stories on newsworthy subjects.

“Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity,” the Supreme Court ruled in its 1971 New York Times vs. United States decision.

A hearing on the request has been scheduled for June 14.





Utah State Records Committee looking to fill vacancy for public member

13 05 2013

Do you have an interest in open government? The Utah State Records Committee is looking for you.

The committee is seeking applications from people interested in filling the vacancy for a second public member on the seven-member body. The committee hears appeals of records requests, as well as establishes records retention policies.

The board includes representatives of local government, news media, private business, the governor’s office and the public.

The current opening was created when the Utah State Legislature amended the law defining the committee’s membership, converting the state auditor’s position into a public member’s seat. State Auditor John Dougall asked for the change on the grounds that he didn’t want a conflict of interest if he had to audit the committee.

(Dougall fired Betsy Ross, the auditor’s appointee to the records committee, claiming she was not doing her job as the auditor’s director of legislative and government affairs. Ross, as the committee’ chair, had opposed HB477, the bill Dougall sponsored as a lawmaker that gutted the Government Records Access and Management Act).

The public member would be nominated by the governor, and approved by the Utah State Senate.

Lex Hemphill, the committee’s chairman, said interested parties can apply on the governor’s website, under boards and commission, or by contacting the board’s secretary, Susan Mumford, at smumford@utah.gov or at 801-531-3861. Hemphill said contacting Mumford would allow the committee to know who applied.





New Jersey bill would make mug shots public records

9 05 2013

Just as Utah officials are looking for ways to restrict access to mug shots, New Jersey is going in the opposite direction.

The Daily Record of Parsippany, N.J., reports that a bill is moving through the Garden State’s legislature classifying booking photos as public records. The state’s open-records laws were ambiguous on the point, with some counties denying access and others granting it.

“Releasing pictures of defendants puts a face with a name,” the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer, R-Ocean County, told the paper. “These pictures serve important public purposes, including protecting the transparency and integrity of our legal process for victims and offenders, helping to identify criminals on the run and keeping law-abiding citizens informed about the crimes and potential criminals in their communities.”

Dancer’s bill would require mug shots to be released to the public within 24 hours of an arrest when practical.

Local prosecutors had read state law as meaning they could withhold mug shots. They also argued that releasing the photos could possibly taint the jury pool.

But the bill’s supporters say there is no evidence that releasing the photos would sway potential jurors.

“If the prosecutors were right, then we should never release arrest information, because that will taint the jury pool, too,” Walter Luers, an open-government attorney, told the Daily Record. “The fact is any coverage any time the information gets out will taint the jury pool.”

Contrast that to Utah, where several jailers are making it more difficult to download — or even view — mug shots in an attempt to keep them away from mug-shot websites that purportedly charge people to remove the images.

Salt Lake County, for example, no longer posts mug shots online, requiring people to file a request under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act to get copies. And even that isn’t a guarantee, as the owner of bustedmugshots.com learned.

In that case, the county declared that the mug shots couldn’t be released because that would violate copyright laws.

This year, the Legislature passed — at Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder’s insistence — HB408, which requires people filing GRAMA requests for mug shots to sign a sworn statement that they won’t post the pictures on websites that charge to remove them.

The New Jersey bill is headed to committee.





Utah not only state with ag-gag law to stop photography of farms, livestock

7 05 2013

While Amy Meyer nearly became the first Utahn to be prosecuted for taking pictures of an “agricultural operation”, her case is a reminder that other state have — or are considering — so-called “ag-gag” bills.

Meyer was facing charges under a 2012 law that made it illegal to photograph or video record agricultural operations — farms, ranches, slaughterhouses, just to name a few — while trespassing or entering the premises illegally. That last part was inserted in the bill after critics said the proposed law would have had kids on school field trips hauled off to jail if they took a picture of the farm they were touring.

Meyer was initially charged by Draper police after making a video of the Dale T. Smith & Sons Meat Packing Co. in February. The charges were dropped — but the city’s prosecutor still retains the right to refile the charge — in April after Meyer’s plight went national.

But Utah is not the only state that has passed such legislation.

Iowa passed a similar law, except its measure goes further in restricting the photos. It makes it a crime not just to take the pictures, but to merely possess them as well. That, as animal-rights attorney Dara Lovitz said, deters journalists from publishing pictures of animal abuse they might receive from whistleblowers.

Mississippi also has a law, while Nebraska, Indiana, Arkansas and Tennessee are considering similar bills. California lawmakers rejected a bill that would have required people who take pictures of animal abuse to turn over the images to authorities within 48 hours.

The bills’ proponents argue that the bills are needed to protect farmers, ranchers and food processors from baseless allegations or misrepresentation. At a 2010 Ag Conference, Utah Farm Bureau Federation President Randy Parker accused the media of sensationalizing farm practices, such as how his father used to remove sheep testicles with his teeth.

But critics see the measures as attempts to muzzle whistleblowers who point out animals being abused in farms or sick animals being processed for food. Under such a law, Upton Sinclair, who wrote the book The Jungle about abuses in the meatpacking industry, would have gone to jail instead of being the inspiration for the Pure Food and Drug Act.

 

 

 

 





Utah District Court affirms records should be free if public benefits

6 05 2013

A 3rd District Court judge’s ruling in an open-records case does more than force the Utah Legislature pay $15,000 in attorney’s fees.

Judge L.A. Dever’s April 30 ruling on behalf of the Utah Democratic Party affirms that government agencies should waive fees when a records request benefits the general public. Dever rejected the Legislature’s attempt to charge the Democrats almost $15,000 for copies of correspondence and other documents related to the redistricting effort.

“I’ve always maintained if there were a case that qualified for public interest, this was it,” said Joel Campbell, an associate professor of journalism at Brigham Young University.

The party sought the documents to find evidence of Republican skulduggery in the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional and legislative district boundaries. Initially, the Democrats agreed to pay $5,000, but lawmakers increased the fee, and only allowed them to take one of three boxes of documents unless additional money was paid.

Eventually, after The Salt Lake Tribune and other media outlets sought to obtain the records, lawmakers posted them online for no cost.

Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act states that government agencies may waive fees if releasing documents would benefit the public rather than an individual. However, the fee waiver is strictly discretionary.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to remove that discretion from the law with a bill that would have required fee waivers if the public-interest test was met. That bill was sent to interim study after the Utah League of Cities and Towns claimed it would be financially ruinous to cities to offer free records.

Even though district court decisions are not considered decisions of record, Campbell believes it will establish a precedent for demanding fee waivers in cases where a documents are sought for a public benefit.