By Susan Haigh
HARTFORD, Conn. — The emotional debate over victim privacy rights that began after the Newtown school shooting is expected to resume in coming weeks in Connecticut, as state lawmakers consider restrictions on public access to certain crime scene photos, 911 recordings and other information about homicides.
In a state that has historically boasted about its strong open government laws, there's disagreement over how much, if any, of those laws should be rolled back in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
"Obviously, it strikes a raw nerve for a lot of folks on both sides of the issues," said House Speaker Brendan Sharkey. "Certainly for victims, as well as members of the public and the media who are looking for more openness and transparency."
After the December 2012 massacre in which 20 first-graders and six educators were gunned down at the school, members of the media, including The Associated Press, asked authorities to turn over 911 recordings and other records from the day of the shooting. The prosecutor in the case balked, citing among other things the flood of attention on the grieving families of victims.
A months-long legal battle ensued, ending when a judge ordered the recordings to be made public. That affirmed a ruling by the state's Freedom of Information Commission that the calls are not exempt from public information laws.
The recordings painted a picture of anguish and tension inside Sandy Hook Elementary School that day, but also showed how Newtown dispatchers mobilized help, reassured callers and urged them to take cover.
Now, lawmakers are expected to soon begin debating proposals offered by a task force created last year by the General Assembly as part of an effort to address concerns voiced by the Newtown families, who feared photos of their dead loved ones would end up posted on the Internet.
The task force, which struggled for months to reach a compromise, ultimately recommended creating a system that would allow the public, including members of the media, to inspect certain materials from homicides, such as video and internal police communications. Those police communications are restricted to the public until May 7 under a law passed in the wake of the shooting that also barred the release of crime scene photos from all homicides. People requesting the information would have to prove there's a strong public interest in its release, and a victim's next of kin or legal representative would be notified of the request and have an opportunity to object to the information's release.
Democratic Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., a former radio news reporter, has made it clear he doesn't support all the panel's recommendations. He called it ill-advised, for example, to restrict public access to recordings of 911 calls related to homicides if there's "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," as the task force suggested. Williams said information on such tapes has led to important reforms.
But Sharkey, a fellow Democrat, hasn't made up his mind yet.
"It's a difficult topic, but we have to get our arms around it so we are striking the right balance," he said.
While sensitive to worries of the media, he said he's also aware of the concerns voiced by some in Newtown who felt their privacy was violated by the release of the 911 calls.
"Most members of the public do assume their calls to 911 will not be broadcast to the world," Sharkey said.
Williams disagreed, saying he believes when someone calls a government agency, "there's almost an expectation that it's part of the public record."
Some advocates for open government and the media have argued the recommendation will weaken Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act because it uses a federal legal precedent as a standard for ultimately releasing the material. It puts the onus on the person requesting the information to prove they should be able to obtain it.
But veteran Republican Rep. Arthur O'Neil said the Sandy Hook massacre has prompted lawmakers to re-examine privacy rights in the Internet age, when it's become so easy to quickly disseminate information to a lot of people.
"That was a very powerful force in this legislature," O'Neill said of the shooting. "And it changed a lot of people's opinions about what they were willing to support and not support legislatively."
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press