Newspaper article Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)

Suit Filed over Death Causes ; Says They're Public Records

Newspaper article Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)

Suit Filed over Death Causes ; Says They're Public Records

Article excerpt

A Pike County resident and the Evansville Courier & Press are suing the Vanderburgh County Health Department to obtain access to cause of death information contained on death certificates maintained by the health department. The newspaper and Rita Ward of Winslow, Ind., contend the death certificates are public records, while the health department interprets state law to require it to restrict access to them.

It's information the newspaper had published on its public records page from 2002 until May when the health department suddenly stopped including death causes in the information it provided to the newspaper.

Ward said she was prompted to investigate what was behind the change when the newspaper stopped publishing death causes. She said she is interested because of the public health implications the information might reveal, such as possible links to smoking-related illnesses.

"I truly do believe printing the cause of death is important. I believe it is a great public tool that can help people," she said. "Maybe a reader might see a neighbor who died of colon cancer and make the decision to have their first overdue colonoscopy. It can be a first step toward a change for the better. It can touch a reader. It's personal. That's why it is important."

"This is information that is important to any community. It is important to the well-being of any community, and that is why I believe the health department collects that information," said Jay Young, the newspaper's investigative editor.

After the Courier & Press quit publishing the information, Ward requested the records from the health department in writing but was denied it in a letter written by Joseph Harrison Jr., attorney for Vanderburgh County. In that letter, Harrison wrote the law requires the purchaser of a death certificate to have a direct interest in the matter.

Ward then filed a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor, who gave a nonbinding opinion in her favor.

Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage said the requirements in the law Harrison cited were made by the Legislature beginning in January 2011 and applied to the state's death registration system. …

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