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Published: Sunday, 6/18/2000

Who will protect the public from government?

COLUMBUS - This fall, candidates for the state legislature will parade through newspaper offices around the state, seeking the plum that could make or break their hopes.

That plum, of course, is the editorial page endorsement.

To get the nod, candidates will face a barrage of questions from publishers, editors, and editorial writers.

Although many of those interviews likely will focus on the school-funding issue, some other questions should be high on the list.

To the incumbent: What have you done to provide more public access to government records? Why has the legislature restricted access to records over the past two years?

To the challenger or candidate for an open seat: If elected, what bills would you introduce to open more records to the public? And do you promise to repeal recent changes in state law that prevent citizens from getting access to public records?

To all candidates: Who will protect the public from the government?

That's also the question posed in an op-ed piece written by Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota.

Ms. Kirtley outlined how government is using concern about the loss of privacy in the Internet Era as the "justification to close off access to public records, shutter the doors of courtrooms, and stop journalists from doing their jobs."

The examples she cited include:

The New York judge who last year ruled that it was an invasion of privacy for a local television station to videotape an arrested man as police escorted him onto a public street.

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that said California officials could choose who inspects arrest records, shielding them from citizens and firms.

The creation of a Press Council in Hong Kong to review citizen complaints about the press and to impose fines.

A new law in France that prohibits journalists from taking pictures of crime suspects in handcuffs because that undermines the concept of "innocent until proven guilty."

Ms. Kirtley also cited a national trend in state legislatures to pursue bills to restrict public access to government records in the name of privacy.

Ohio has been part of that trend.

Last year, the General Assembly slipped a provision into the state budget to benefit lobbyists and protect themselves from public scrutiny.

Lawmakers cut off public access to records that the Legislative Services Commission uses to draft bills and amendments. The records were used by citizens and reporters to trace the history of legislation, but lawmakers didn't like that.

Also last year, the legislature shut off public access to the home addresses, phone numbers, and financial data of law enforcement officers, and information about their families. That includes officers' participation in employee assistance programs and the name of the company where a spouse or child works.

Journalists can get access, but only after complying with North Korea-like requirements, including a written request that "disclosure of the information sought would be in the public interest."

The state Supreme Court compounded the mistake, by accepting a federal appeals court ruling that a constitutional right to privacy overpowers the public's right to inspect personnel files of law enforcement officers.

Since then, other groups have formed a line behind the "privacy banner," including government children's services workers.

Their argument that the public records law should be watered down to protect their safety should be scrutinized closely. The sad truth is that a criminal would use any tactic to find them. The end result is that it will be more difficult for reporters to find corrupt government employees.

As state legislative candidates head for newspaper endorsement interviews this fall, journalists should not feel self-conscious about any effort to hold the feet of candidates to the fire on open government issues. As reporters know, citizens all over the state use the open records law to try to keep government accountable.

In fact, newspapers should take a serious look at whether to endorse a legislative pay raise - which the legislature plans to ram through in a lame-duck session this December - until the erosion of Ohio's open records law is reversed.

Jim Drew is chief of The Blade's Columbus bureau.



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