Access Exemptions: Inviting Government Control or Recognizing Political Realities?
Campbell, Joel, The Quill
Do journalists who ask for special access to government-controlled records and places find themselves on a slippery slope that leads to licensing the U.S. news media - or is it a practical way to continue to keep the public informed as access dries up?
In the face of lawmakers concern about personal privacy, particularly in government records and on the Internet, some media groups have agreed to exemptions while the public is shut out of records. Proponents of these exemptions argue that, even if the public can't have access, there should be some way for the media to provide important information from those records targeted for closure.
Such access deals struck between media groups and legislators are a concern for many people. Historically, the Society of Professional Journalists has not supported access rights for journalists that are greater than those afforded the public. Such a philosophy is generally supported by the US. Supreme Court, which has said there is no constitutional right of access to most public records. Even when the court has extended a Constitutional right of access, such as in the case of criminal court proceedings, they have granted no special rights of access to journalists.
In a high-profile example involving records access, SPJ rejected the idea of a media exemption during the debate of the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which has resulted in closure of drivers' license and motor vehicle registration records in the United States. At the same time, tow truck owners and insurance companies did ask for - and received - access exemptions.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and SPJ Freedom of Information chairwoman during the Driver's Privacy Protection Act debate in Congress, raised the alarm about the pitfalls of media organizations asking for special access exemptions during a panel discussion at the Convention in Columbus.
"If the media gets an exemption, you put government in the position of deciding who the 'media' is and that is something they have never been able to do in the past, except for the minor exception of some shield laws," Dalglish said.
The debate is further confused by disagreement among journalists about who does and does not belong in their ranks. For example, there is disagreement about the status of Internet journalists.
Some open government advocates, particularly at the state level, say SPJ's position against exemptions shows a lack of understanding about local political reality.
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature closed traffic accident reports after accident victims complained that chiropractors and personal injury attorneys where using information from the reports to harass them. With widespread support in the Utah Legislature for the measure, the news media half-heartedly accepted an access exemption, saying the public still needed some way to find out about accidents.
Utah media organizations had suggested a better alternative would be to create official restrictions for information used by attorneys and chiropractors. …