The Vermont Legislature has some work to do…

As this decision makes clear, Vermont FOI law provides no right of access to law enforcement investigative records — even after the case is closed! That’s a wee problem, folks…

The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday granted a partial victory to the Rutland Herald in the newspaper’s effort to get access to records concerning allegations that Rutland city employees viewed pornography at work.

The justices issued the second decision in as many weeks in the Herald’s access-to-records fights. It said the paper can get access to disciplinary records stemming from the investigation of city public works employees, but the names of the workers will be blacked out.

But it barred similar access to a probe of city police department employees. The court ruled those records were exempt from disclosure because they were linked to the detection and investigation of crimes.

At the same time, the court suggested the Legislature re-examine the exemptions from disclosure under the Vermont public records law to see whether some criteria could be set up to make police investigative records public.

Robert Hemley, a Burlington-based lawyer who frequently works on First Amendment cases and represented the Herald, said the court re-emphasized that under Vermont law as currently written, there is no public access to records relating to police investigations of specific crimes — even when the case is over.

Aiming Nuclear Weapons at Academic Molehills

I warned you last year that this was likely coming somewhere…

In Virginia, the attorney general, skeptical of global warming, tried to use his subpoena powers to build a fraud case against a climatology professor.

In Wisconsin, Republican Party officials sought the emails of a history professor, trying to demonstrate that he had misused his public account to stir political unrest during the state’s highly publicized battles over organized labor.

Maryland Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, has cited these controversies, which garnered national attention, as he vows to prevent a similar situation from arising here. Rosenberg introduced a bill being considered in the General Assembly that would extend broader protection from public information requests to professors at the state’s public universities.

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Florida Guv Signs Mindless Exemption Into Law…

From the Reporters Committee:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Thursday that exempts any photographs, video or audio recordings that depict or record the “killing of a person” from the mandatory disclosure requirements under the state’s public records laws.

The bill, which Florida media organizations have fought against, would allow access to such recordings by certain immediate family members, local government entities, and state and federal agencies. Members of the public could get access to these recordings only upon a showing that “good cause,” as defined in the exemption, exists for disclosure.

It takes about 15 seconds to think of a reason why this is a terrible exemption. Think, for example, of a 14-year-old boy dying under a cloud of controversy at a Florida juvenile boot camp. Think the news media might be able to shed some light on a situation like that? Well, they did…and now they won’t.

Exemption Creep in Vermont…

Front view of the Vermont State House (taken S...

Image via Wikipedia

This is an exercise that all state open government advocates should engage in: scouring the statute books for those pesky hidden exemptions. In Vermont, there are 280 and growing…

In 2007, a state report said there were 206 exemptions written into Vermont’s open government laws.

In the 2010 election campaign, Jim Condos, then running for secretary of state, said the list of exemptions has grown to 230.

At the meeting of the Vermont Press Association on Thursday, Condos said the number now is more like 260 exemptions scattered throughout the state statutes.

 

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A Look at Virginia’s ‘Working Papers’ Exemption

A great idea for Sunshine Week is to inform citizens about the damage wrought by amorphous, overbroad exemptions like this:

Officials at a conservative fiscal advocacy group thought they had struck political gold when an email surfaced recently from a union official threatening to withhold support from Democrats in the fall elections over an anti-labor vote.

So the organization, Americans for Prosperity, made open-records requests to Democratic lawmakers and the clerks of the state House and Senate to see who had received that message or others from union reps.

Some lawmakers simply didn’t respond.

Others declined to share their email, invoking a provision in Virginia law that gives elected officials discretion over whether they turn over such records.

The so-called “working papers exemption” is part of the state Freedom of Information Act, which is intended to ensure citizens’ access to government records and meetings. Working papers are defined as records prepared by or for a public official for personal or deliberative use.

The exemption is written with enough latitude to permit state officials, from the governor to General Assembly members, to reject requests for certain documents and correspondence from the public.

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