Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We go to court for your right to information

When my colleagues and I field readers’ phone calls or get their e-mails, many people suggest to us that it must be easy to get the news and information we print – that people simply give it to us.
If only it were that easy.
In fact, lots of people don’t want to talk to us, and people working for government agencies are sometimes the least helpful of all.
But the information that governments don’t want to give out is information that you’re entitled to. Which often prompts us to maneuver through a painstakingly difficult -- and expensive -- legal process to get you some of the most interesting stories we’ve reported.
Earlier this year, for example, we revealed how two local school districts had paid out more than $400,000 in settlements to parents of students with autism. The parents had asserted in lawsuits that inadequate services were being provided to their children.
We obtained that information by using the California Public Records Act, which allows the public to seek specific information from government.
We were compelled to use the act because officials for Lucia Mar Unified and San Luis Coastal would not simply release information about the settlements, citing concern over student confidentiality.
Ultimately, student names were redacted from the records given to us in response to our request. (To be fair, officials with San Luis Coastal were prompt in handling our request for information).
The total dollar settlement was important because one of the districts – the South County’s Lucia Mar -- was struggling with budget challenges. And both Lucia Mar and San Luis Coastal were accused of failing to meet the needs of students under their care.
As San Luis Obispo County’s only daily newspaper, we regularly file requests for information that we believe you have a right to know. Sometimes we don’t succeed. For instance, we sought the recording of the 9-1-1 emergency call recorded by the San Luis Obispo Police Department when the recent double murder-suicide occurred.
We wanted to know – and figured you would also want to know -- if there were details on that tape that might shed light on what happened and why. For example, did the dispatcher handle the call properly? Did the caller say anything that would help explain such a horrific crime?
The department denied our request, citing an exemption under the public records law that covers investigative materials. To date, there is no case law allowing public access to such emergency tapes, so we did not push the point.
But we did seek court relief in two other recent cases where we believed strongly that the public’s right to information was at risk.
Earlier this month we opposed Sheriff Pat Hedges’ request for a restraining order – colloquially called a gag order – that would bar anyone involved in the controversial bugging case from discussing it. Hedges is being accused of bugging an employee’s office and thereby violating that man’s civil rights.
The sheriff acknowledges that he bugged the office of a high-ranking officer to look into criminal allegations, charges he later determined to be unfounded.
The Tribune filed a motion to oppose Hedges’ request. Superior Court Judge Roger Picquet reaffirmed the public’s interest in an open process, ruling against the sheriff, saying his request represented “a textbook example of a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech.”
Similarly, we joined the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press earlier this year to oppose a move by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office to have a gag order placed on participants in a case involving a San Francisco doctor. He is charged with two felonies related to a failed attempt to harvest a disabled man’s organs at a local hospital.
The prosecutor said that without a gag order in place for the pretrial phase, the “integrity” of the case would be at risk. Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman declined the prosecution’s request, saying pretrial publicity alone was not a sufficient reason to restrict the public’s access to information.
We take seriously our rights and responsibilities under the First Amendment, as does our parent company, The McClatchy Co. In its mission statement, McClatchy says: “The company’s newspapers and Web sites are steadfast defenders of First Amendment values and advocates for the communities they serve.”
It is in that spirit that we seek to uphold your right to know by being willing to spend the time and money to go to court, when necessary.
Charles Davis, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, one of the nation’s foremost journalism schools, puts it this way:
“Freedom of information has come to be defined as a special interest of the press. In reality, it’s a fundamental democratic right.”
_ Tad Weber

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"For example, did the dispatcher handle the call properly?"


And just what exactly makes a newspaper staffer qualified to make such a determination?

Try to justify it how ever you wish, this is still trying to get more blood to mix with your ink.

Best Applicable Quote;

"Why should I trust you? You're reporters!"

Tom Clancy -- Executive Orders