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Monday, July 14, 2014
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Published: Tuesday, 9/13/2005

Narrowing public-records law

WHEN it comes to public records, the Ohio Supreme Court giveth and it taketh away.

While the state's high court has in recent years usually weighed in reliably on the side of openness involving information held by state government, two recent decisions are troubling from the viewpoint of those in the business of serving as public watchdogs.

The court held in a case brought by the Columbus Dispatch that the home addresses of public employees are not public records, at least when it comes to the news media. Oddly, unions, health insurance companies, and charities still have access to this information.

Likewise, the court ruled last month that photographs of police officers don't have to be released to the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Youngstown Vindicator, which sought them.

In both cases, the arguments by the agencies that sought to keep the information secret boiled down to a claim that release of the addresses and photos might somehow subject the employees to personal injury. According to the court decisions, no evidence of actual injury to anyone was submitted.

In the Columbus case, the court upheld refusal by the state Department of Administrative Services to withhold certain records from the Dispatch on the grounds that employee addresses do not "serve to document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities" of a state office.

What the court failed to consider fully is that it has created an unjustifiable screen of privacy that public employees can use to shield themselves from the media when there are questions about how they carry out their taxpayer-funded duties.

As shown by The Blade's continuing investigation into the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation investment scandal, it often takes intense outside scrutiny to detect wrongdoing by public employees, either because their superiors don't know what's going on or, worse, turn a blind eye.

In the case of the police photographs, the court heard testimony that the Cleveland police department routinely released photos of officers for public relations purposes, but refused when pictures were sought for publication of a story on overtime abuse.

We would give a little more weight to the fear cited by the court that police department photos obtained by criminals under public release could be used to create phony identification cards but, again, such action is only speculative.

The bottom line is that when there is good news, public agencies want their employees' pictures in the newspaper. When the news is bad, the tendency is to slam down a barrier of purported privacy.

Whenever taxpayer dollars are expended, any and all information about those who carry out public duties should be a matter of open record. Any interpretation otherwise is a disservice to those who pay the bills.



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