Utahn debates roles of government spokesmen at National Press Club event

4 09 2013

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, recently participated in a debate over censorship by government public information officers.

The event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. this past month addressed the issue of government spokespeople limiting reporters’ access to officials at agencies, monitoring interviews and even banning reporters from speaking to certain agencies.

While much of the discussion focused on spokespeople at federal agencies, Petersen pointed out that the mindset that public-information officers need to “control” reporters extends far beyond the D.C. Beltway. Petersen, who is the managing editor of the Valley Journals, sees it in the Salt Lake Valley communities her papers cover.

Petersen said her papers have been forced to go through spokespeople to get information on road projects, and even had the city’s spokesman sit in on an interview with the engineer. In another case, Petersen said she almost published the wrong time for an Easter Egg hunt because a city recreation official said he was barred from speaking to reporters.

“Nobody ever voted for a PAO [Public Affairs Officer],” Petersen said. “No PAO, as yet, has a formal vote on city, state or federal business – so why does government think the public should be fine hearing from them all the time, instead of the people they elected?”

 

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U.S. Border Patrol wins IRE’s first-ever award for withholding information

11 07 2013

The Society of Professional Journalists and its Utah chapter are not the only groups using “awards” to spotlight agencies that withhold information from the public.

Investigative Reporters and Editors has created a “Golden Padlock” award to highlight government agencies and officials that stymie efforts at open government and transparency.

IRE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving investigative journalism, awarded the first Golden Padlock to the U.S. Border Patrol, for holding back details on shootings involving its agents along the border with Mexico that resulted in several deaths.

“The U.S. Border Patrol’s resounding silence on fatal shootings involving its agents epitomizes the kind of intransigence for which this award was created,” IRE President David Cay Johnston said in a statement issued by the group. “Accountability is an essential element of any public agency, but all the more so when its agents are empowered to fire weapons that kill. The Border Agency appears to have forgotten that duty.”

Other nominees for the award included the New Jersey Transit Authority for giving reporters a completely blacked-out copy of its hurricane-response plan; and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which took five years to produce a requested document on Lyme disease.

IRE also added the U.S. Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder for revelations that the department was monitoring journalists’ phone records.





Louisiana makes it a crime to name concealed-weapons permit holders

26 06 2013

Louisiana recently made Utah’s restriction on access to concealed-carry permit information look benign by comparison.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed two bills into law that make it a crime to disclose the name or address of a concealed gun permit holder. Those who do face six months in jail and or a fine of up to $1,000.

In contrast, Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act labels concealed-carry permit information as protected information, meaning the state Bureau of Criminal Identification cannot release the information, nor even confirm if someone has a permit or has lost one.

The only penalty it prescribes is for state workers who disclose such information, and it is a class A misdemeanor. But there is no penalty if, for example, one were to point out, through other sources, that Sens. Howard A. Stephenson, R-Draper, and Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, and Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, all carry concealed weapons. 

But Louisiana’s laws, passed in response to a New York newspaper’s publication of a list of handgun-permit holders, only carves out an exemption for reporting that a permit was revoked after its holder was convicted of a gun-related felony.

“There are limitations on First Amendment rights,” said Republican state Rep. Jeff Thompson, the bills’ sponsor.  “You have to balance those.”

But media advocates say the move amounts to censorship by punishing journalists for publishing information they obtained from other sources.

“The Second Amendment relates to your right to own firearms,” Louisiana media lawyer Loretta Mince said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with whether other people are permitted to know that you own firearms.”





Connecticut lawmakers pass bill to keep murder records secret

7 06 2013

This may sound familiar to Utahns: A bill drastically changing government-records laws is secretly drafted and rushed through with little time for public comment.

In a scenario reminiscent of the HB477 debacle, Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill that makes records of murder cases private. The bill, which was drafted in secret by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s staff, the state’s top prosecutor and leaders in the legislature, was a response to the Sandy Hook shootings, where a gunman killed 20 students and six teachers before committing suicide.

The bill, which did not go through the public hearing process and was passed at the end of the legislature’s session, exempts photos, film or digital images depicting homicide victims, as well as 911 calls describing the condition of a victim. It also shifts the burden of proof from the state to the requester, who has to make the case why a record should be released.

Malloy said the purpose of the bill was to protect the families from seeing the crime photos on the Internet. Some of the victims’ families support the move.

“I’m fully supportive of an open and transparent government, but I can’t understand how distributing graphic photos of murdered teachers and children serves any purpose other than causing our families more pain,” Dean Pinto, whose 6-year-old son, Jack, was killed in the school shooting, was quoted in reports as saying.

The law initially only dealt with the Sandy Hook case, but was expanded to cover all homicides in the Nutmeg State, which sets a bad precedent, critics warn.

“What they’re doing here is protecting the family … but it becomes a slippery slope,” said David Cuillier, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Anything that makes someone uncomfortable, the government can make secret.”

H/t to the Reporter’s 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.





Idaho’s efforts to stifle Ogden’s Five Wives Vodka earns it a Jefferson Muzzle

16 04 2013

While Utah’s liquor laws sometimes leave people shaking their heads, it was neighboring Idaho that won recognition for attempting to ban a vodka made in Ogden.

This past week, The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression awarded the Idaho State Liquor Commission one of nine 2013 Jefferson Muzzle awards for barring the sale of Five Wives Vodka in the state.

The Jefferson Muzzles are given around April 13, Jefferson’s birthday, to recognize the foundation’s namesake’s dedication to free expression by spotlighting those who try to trample that right.

In the Five Wives’ case, Ogden’s Own Distillery attempted to sell its vodka to Idaho bars and liquor stores. The Idaho liquor agency refused to permit its sale in the state, claiming that the product’s “concept” was “offensive to a prominent segment of our population.”

Idaho’s population is 27 percent LDS, and the vodka’s name could be seen as a reference to polygamy. The label also showed a photo of a group of five women in bonnets, lifting their skirts to show their petticoats, with kittens stuffed in pockets over their crotches.

When Ogden’s Own threatened a lawsuit, and the controversy went national, the liquor board backed down — to a point. The vodka is only available through special order, meaning it cannot be stocked on shelves or prominently advertised.

“Because the value of speech is a completely subjective determination that can vary from person to person, the First Amendment does not permit government officials to impose their individual preferences on the public,” the Jefferson Muzzle citation reads. “As United States Supreme Court Justice Harlan famously wrote, ‘one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.’”

Other Jefferson Muzzle winners included the Oklahoma school that ordered a 5-year-old boy to turn his University of Michigan T-shirt inside out, a Pennsylvania school board for banning the book The Dirty Cowboy and officials who attempted to bar Chick-Fil-A stores from coming to their areas because of the owner’s stance against same-sex marriage.