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Published: Monday, 1/18/2010

Keeping records public

ON NOTHING more than a hunch, a state senator wants to ban the public broadcast of public records - in this case, 911 calls. It's a bad idea.

Sen. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville) suspects that broadcasting 911 emergency phone calls on television, radio, and the Internet makes crime witnesses reluctant to contact police and puts those who do at risk.

He has no proof of this, but that hasn't stopped him from trying to outlaw playing the 911 calls for all to hear. Senator Patton introduced his bill last year, and plans to resurrect it soon. It would prohibit broadcasts of 911 audiotapes, with violators facing fines of $10,000.

The legislation would continue to designate transcripts of the calls as public records and allow news media to listen to the audio tapes privately, but not air them publicly.

Reporters would also have to identify themselves in advance before receiving permission to listen to the recordings.

The bill would weaken the First Amendment and the freedom of the press to disseminate public information. More than a decade ago, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that tapes of 911 phone calls are public records and subject to release under the state's sunshine laws.

The court subsequently ruled that those laws applied to the audio of the calls as well as the written transcripts. Senator Patton's bill would block broadcasters from airing not only the caller but also the response of 911 operators and public safety forces, a measure of accountability.

Mr. Patton wants a college or university group to research his claims that broadcasting the public tapes hurts police work. We have a hunch they'd send him back to school, instead.

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