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To watch in 2014: Ag-Gag bills pose problems for the public’s right to know



By Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director, New England First Amendment Coalition

As we ring in the New Year without a new farm bill, we put off until next year the resolution of an important right-to-know issue of significant public concern.  If you eat, live near a farm, or care about animals, this bill should concern you, and so, it concerns us all.

Last month, NEFAC joined with National Freedom of Information Coalition and 44 other organizations to raise the alarm against certain proposed provisions which would exempt from disclosure basic information about agricultural and livestock operations, including information that individuals living or sharing  a waterway with “concentrated animal feeding operations” (or CAFOs) urgently need to protect and advocate for their environment and the health of members of their communities.  These “CAFOs” are otherwise known as factory farms, where animals are mass produced in a small area, and so fed antibiotics to prevent widespread bacterial infection. Such use of antibiotics in CAFOs lead to the accumulation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their waste products which advocacy groups posit will pass into the neighboring waterways, posing health threats to surrounding communities.  This may be the motivation for the provisions of the farm bill which would require the EPA to withhold basic location and contact information about agricultural and livestock operations.

H.R. 2642 (known as the Farm Bill) is currently listed on the congressional budget website with the status of “resolving differences.”

The farm bill on the national level is only part of the puzzle with regards to the efforts by some members of the agricultural industry to shroud with secrecy what goes on behind closed doors.  At the state level, bills have popped up in more than ten states in 2013, including New Hampshire and Vermont.  While these efforts have met with steep resistance this year leading to defeats to bills in 11 states, we can be most certain the industry has not yet given up on these attempts to shut the critical eyes of journalists and watch dog organizations on the sometimes inhumane or downright disgusting practices that take place at the sites of the worst offenders.  According to Kenneth Bunting, of NFOIC, the ”so-called ‘Ag-gag’  provisions that have found their way into numerous states’ statutes, and which hopefully will be stricken from the federal Farm Bill if Congress ever gets around to doing its job, are overreaching bad ideas aimed at hiding vital  health and safety information from the public. The powerful Agri-business interests pushing these do not have family-farm privacy or any other public interest at heart.”  Staff Attorney at the Vermont ACLU, Dan Barrett, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Burlington Free Press that “FOIA already has strong personal privacy protections for individuals that protects farmers and ranchers from having their intimate details made public.  There is not need to extend personal privacy to the busines and commercial aspects of farms, particularly where reduced access to information will leave us all in the dark about changes to our environment.” Continue reading ‘To watch in 2014: Ag-Gag bills pose problems for the public’s right to know’ »

Maine Supreme Court makes 911 transcripts public

cliffmug-106x150By Cliff Schechtman,  executive editor of the Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND, MAINE – The Portland Press Herald won a landmark freedom of information case last month that will now allow the public to better evaluate how well first responders do their job.

In a unanimous decision that reversed a lower court, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court declared that 911 transcripts  should be released to the public.

The case involved a Biddeford teenager and her boyfriend who had called 911 seeking protection from their threatening landlord. Police responded to the 911 call, determined it was a “civil matter” and left.

Three minutes later, both teens lay dead. York County Prosecutors say James Earl Pak, 74, shot to death Derrick Thompson, 19, and Thompson’s girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18 in Dec. 2012. Thompson’s mother, Susan Johnson, also was shot but survived.

Why did police leave the scene and what exactly did the victim tell dispatchers when he called? Did the caller say that the landlord was threatening to kill them? (The answer is yes, but more on that later.)

These are some of the questions the Portland Press Herald had been trying to answer but was stymied by law enforcement’s refusal to release the 911 tapes and a superior court’s poor understanding of the public records law.

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, head of the Attorney General’s Office’s criminal division,  had denied the newspapers records request  on the basis that releasing the information would interfere with an ongoing investigation.

“As chief, it is my position that the requested material constitutes intelligence and investigative information and should not be publicly released,” Stokes wrote in his response. “It is the position we have taken in every single homicide investigation. End of story.”

But Mr. Stokes did not have the last word. The Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Ellen Gorman, stated “We conclude that the state failed to meet its burden of establishing the reasonable possibility that disclosure of the Pak E-9-1-1 transcripts would interfere with law enforcement proceedings.”

The ruling sets a legal precedent for the release of transcripts that the state had deemed confidential.
Continue reading ‘Maine Supreme Court makes 911 transcripts public’ »

Legislative task force in Conn. adopts look, listen but do not copy (without a trip to the commission) rule

Bjames-smith-hed-shoty James H. Smith, retired editor and president of the non-profit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information

When Connecticut legislators met in secret last session, working with the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, they came out from behind closed doors long enough to pass legislation making secret crime scene photos and certain 911 tapes of every homicide in the state henceforth.

The legislature also created a task force to study the balance between victim privacy and the public’s right to know, but stacked the 17-member body with privacy advocates. I am among the seven members clearly in favor of transparency.

When state Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott, after listening to arguments last month from Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky to keep the 911 tapes secret, ordered them released; Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane urged his fellow task force members to get moving and recommend laws that provide for more secrecy.

The task force has been meeting since August, and has adopted recommendations this month that would allow limited access to crime scene photographs, 911 recordings and other audio or video depicting the condition of homicide victims.  The access recommended would be for citizens and journalists to listen to the audio tapes or view the photographs or visual images so long as copies are not made.  It also creates a process for requesting copies which would shift the burden to the access seeker to show it is not an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” to release the copies.

This recommendation came after months of meetings where the viewpoints of open government advocates and victims’ advocates were in sharp relief.  It is clear listening to the tapes of staffers at Sandy Hook School calling 911 while the shooting and killing was going on, that our society has things it must learn from those tapes. Law enforcement experts are now debating whether Newtown police responded correctly. Those tapes also show the courage of school staff and the calm and professionalism of police dispatchers.

Proponents of privacy sought to get rid of Connecticut’s “Perkins test” on releasing information about crimes, and “codify” the federal “Favish” standard, which essentially shifts the burden of proof from the government to the public on showing why investigative files should be made public. The problem with the Supreme Court Favish decision, keeping the photos of Clinton adviser Vince Foster secret, is that it requires a citizen to prove the photos are of legitimate public interest, but does not allow the citizen to see the photos.

The Connecticut Supreme Court Perkins decision has been the guide for releasing information for more than two decades. In order for information held by the government to remain hidden, the government must show that the information sought is “highly offensive to a reasonable person” AND is not of “legitimate public concern.” Both standards must be met, or the information is public. Continue reading ‘Legislative task force in Conn. adopts look, listen but do not copy (without a trip to the commission) rule’ »

NEFAC seeks nominations for annual citizenship and FOI awards

The New England First Amendment Coalition is seeking applications for a pair of annual awards to recognize both private citizens and professional journalists who aggressively advance the people’s knowledge of what government is doing – or failing to do – on their behalf.

The Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award and the FOI Award will be presented at NEFAC’s annual luncheon Feb. 7 in Boston.  Candidates for the Citizenship Award should have shown tenacity or bravery in the face of difficulty in obtaining information of which the public has a right to know. Both awards will be presented to New Englanders for activity in the six-state region in calendar year 2013.

Nominations for the Citizenship Award are due Jan. 8 and can be made by submitting these forms by email to or  by fax to 401.751.7542. 

Rosanna Cavanagh, NEFAC’s Executive Director, said that the FOI Award will be a recognition of journalism at its best, working to bring the sometimes shadowy workings of the government into the light of day. Work in broadcast, online or print media is eligible.  It will be given to a New England journalist for work that protects or advances the public’s right to know under federal or state law. Preference will be given to applicants who overcome significant official resistance.

Applicants for the FOI Award should submit their story or series along with a cover letter explaining the process of getting the story, why it was a significant accomplishment and how it affected the public. Entries, which also are due by Jan. 8, may be submitted electronically. The entry forms are here
Continue reading ‘NEFAC seeks nominations for annual citizenship and FOI awards’ »