Friday, June 21, 2024

Senate Committee Advances Bill Restricting Access to Public Records

by BPT Staff
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By Claire Sullivan | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE–Louisianans may soon lose access to great swaths of government records currently made available upon request under the state public records law.

A Senate panel voted 6-2 Wednesday to advance a bill — backed by Gov. Jeff Landry and sponsored by Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek — that would gut public access to information at every level of government.

Cloud

The proposal, Senate Bill 482, would bar access to “any records reflecting advisory opinions, recommendations and deliberations comprising part of a process by which governmental decisions and policies are formulated.”

Cloud said this would allow government employees to give opinions to decision makers “without fear of later being subject to public ridicule or criticism” and prevent unfinalized information from being disseminated.

“To put that information out prematurely would be disingenuous, misleading and potentially catastrophic in some cases,” Cloud said.

A host of critics from the news media and good-government groups said the bill would severely restrict the public’s access to information on how their governments operate. One First Amendment lawyer, Scott Sternberg, called the proposal “a repeal of the public records law.”

Another section of Cloud’s bill — which, in contrast, stirred little debate — would protect the schedule and security details of the governor, his spouse and his child. In addition to the governor, her proposal was supported by the attorney general and the lieutenant governor.

“The public records law is designed to bring transparency to the taxpayer as the government spends their precious tax dollars,” Landry said in a statement. “Over time these laws have become weaponized to stifle deliberative speech.”

“I am 100% committed to the transparency of final decisions and to communicating with our citizens those decisions,” Landry added.

Changing the state public records law was not part of Landry’s campaign. In the legislative session on criminal justice shortly after he took office in January, he pushed for one bill that would make publicly accessible certain information about juvenile offenders and another that would shield from the public certain information about executions.

Sternberg, who serves as general counsel for the Louisiana Press Association, said Cloud’s bill would prevent the public from ever learning how government officials reached a certain decision — not just during the time in which the conversation was ongoing but also after.

In justifying the bill’s scope, Cloud said there is already judicial precedent that allows government officials to reject public record requests that include deliberations. She argued this bill would simply codify that rule, which she argues was established in the 2004 state case Kyle v. Louisiana Public Service Commission.

Critics rejected Cloud’s interpretation of that ruling. Sternberg said he has never seen a public records request denied citing that judicial precedent. Neither has Lee Zurik, an investigative reporter for WVUE-TV in New Orleans, who said he files 450 requests a year.

Three journalists — Zurik, Investigate TV reporter Chris Nakamoto and WBRZ-TV managing editor Kelly Kissel — testified against the bill, a highly unusual move for journalists, who typically cover meetings, not partake in them. But they said the potentially dire consequences on public transparency brought them to testify.

“It’s intentionally vague, intentionally broad, and I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Nakamoto said. “I foresee it being used to block nearly all public information from ever being released. It’s going to overburden the courts in an already overburdened system.”

Steven Procopio, president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council, said his organization usually avoids filing red cards to speak in opposition to bills. “But honestly, if I had the option to put in five red cards, I’d do that,” he said.

He asked lawmakers to imagine the next time a natural disaster strikes Louisiana, and people want to understand why the government made certain decisions. Under this bill, he said, those deliberations would be shielded from public view.

Cloud said that throughout the testimony on her bill, she was in and out of the room talking with others about the potential implications. “I don’t want to do harm, I want to do good,” she said. “That’s what the people who sent me here and my Lord and Savior expect of me.”

She promised she would work to address some of the issues before her bill was heard on the Senate floor, where it is headed next.

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