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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

Right to know impeded - again

A BIG black cloud settled over the Statehouse during what was supposed to be "Sunshine Week," as the General Assembly continues to rain on Ohio's open-records law.

State lawmakers took action to impede the flow of public information on two fronts, including an amendment to a public-records bill that would keep secret the lists kept by county sheriffs of Ohioans who have permits to carry concealed weapons.

The effect will be to make it harder for the public, via the news media, to determine whether the controversial concealed-carry law is working. Governor Taft has pledged to veto it and we urge him to do so.

The legislature's other target is the statute concerning the records of county coroners. Copying a Florida law instigated hysterically in the aftermath of the 2001 death of race car driver Dale Earnhardt, lawmakers are zipping an unwarranted shroud of secrecy on preliminary autopsy results and investigative findings by coroners, including autopsy photos and suicide notes.

That bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Wagner, of Sycamore, was passed by the state Senate on Tuesday, and must be returned to the House for a vote on Senate changes before being sent to the governor, who favors it, for signing.

Under the bill, journalists would still be able to view the coroner's preliminary information, but they wouldn't be allowed to make copies, which would hinder accuracy in news gathering. In addition, reporters would be forced to submit time-wasting written requests as well as make a statement - undoubtedly unconstitutional - that release of the information is in "the best interest of the public."

Insurance companies, on the other hand, would have specific statutory authority to immediately obtain the coroner's preliminary findings, photographs and all, without jumping through any hoops.

We can understand that. After all, it is most assuredly a matter of vital public concern that insurers be able to quickly determine whether a policy holder has committed suicide. That way, they can reject insurance claims more efficiently.

In their haste to service the insurance lobby, the masters of one-party rule in Columbus have forgotten that information held by public officials belongs to the public and, under the First Amendment, cannot be withheld for flimsy reasons.

Nonetheless, the Republican majority in the Statehouse - like their GOP brethren in Washington - seem to have an obsession with secrecy. They have hacked away steadily in recent years to cripple what used to be a strong open-records law.

Ironically, all this legislative obfuscation was taking place during "Sunshine Week," a national effort by media organizations to illustrate the importance of keeping public information public, as the Constitution intended.

Claims of abuse of privacy in connection with these two bills are overblown. Autopsy photos are seldom, if ever, published anywhere. Moreover, the public has a right to know how its laws are being administered, and there is scant evidence - but plenty of paranoia - that anyone might be endangered if it is known they're packing a gun.

You don't have to be a weatherman to know that the big black cloud around Capitol Square in Columbus is hiding information that ought to be bathed in the pure sunshine of open government. Unfortunately, the legislature has learned how to control its version of the weather.



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