Home Law OPINION: A new public records law is threatening Ohio’s freedom

OPINION: A new public records law is threatening Ohio’s freedom

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As an exemption to public records requests concerning children involved in school bus crashes approaches the Senate floor, opinion writer Michael Broerman examines its potential impact on the public’s right to information.

Access to public records in the state of Ohio is slowly disappearing as lawmakers tear layer after layer from the public’s rights to information.

According to the Freedom of Information Act, citizens are entitled to request, inspect and copy the laws of their state. However, it is not unusual for state legislatures to pass restrictions on public records; these include who can access certain records, what records will be released, where they can be accessed and whether they are available for copying.

For example, in Michigan, people who are currently incarcerated are not entitled to the same rights under FOIA as free citizens. Clearly, it is well within the state’s ability to place restrictions on public records access. But the state of Ohio seems to be pushing the limit of those rights.

Whenever an exemption is added to Ohio’s public records law, Ohio Revised Code 149.43, it is assigned a letter of the alphabet in chronological order. However, if the exemptions should number beyond the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, the letters will double up with (aa), (bb), and so on. There is currently a bill before the State Senate that, if passed, would become exemption (gg) of the public records law. In comparison, Michigan’s public records laws have only reached (y).

House Bill 8 is a perfect example of the minuscule cracks in Ohio’s public records law that, together, create a gushing hole for the people’s right to information to pour out of.

If the exemption is added to the Ohio Revised Code, the names of children involved in school bus crashes will neither be available upon request to the public, nor included in publicly available police reports. This is a bill that means well, spearheaded by the parents of a child involved in a crash who were hounded by personal injury lawyers after the accident, but it has potentially monumental consequences in the journalism community.

School bus crashes are obviously not an everyday occurrence. But according to the National High Traffic and Safety Commission, between 2002 and 2013 there were over 1,200 school transportation related crashes. In the event of a tragedy or accident, the first line of defense for the concerned public and worried parents is journalists.

They are the ones whose livelihood it is to find out the facts and inform the public who is injured and how severely. House Bill 8 will not only make it harder for journalists to do their jobs, but it will only further extend the already excruciatingly worrisome time it takes for parents to find out the fate of their children.

I obviously have a stake in this as a journalist myself. As a purveyor of information, the mounting number of exemptions to public records laws is a monster growing out of “good intentions.” But what happens when certain people, not all with good intentions, bankroll the campaign for another exemption to the State Senate?

There is a complex yin and yang playing out in the public in regards to information and privacy. People are finding that their personal information is becoming far less personal, as nearly half the country learned after the Equifax leak. People want to protect their own information even more securely. But at the same time, there is a greater demand for transparency from companies and elected officials.

Where is the middle ground? To what degree are you willing to give up your own privacy to hold elected officials and trusted companies accountable? This bill is not just about school bus crashes. This bill poses a major threat to the open air exchange of information that democracy and journalism need to survive.

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One Comment

  1. Allan Blutstein

    September 21, 2017 at 11:41 am

    This sentence is confusing: “According to the Freedom of Information Act [hyperlinked to U.S. Dep’t of State], citizens are entitled to request, inspect and copy the laws of their state.” The federal FOIA applies to records of federal agencies only, not to States — all of which have their own versions of the FOIA (in Ohio, the Public Records Act).

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