In an impressive display of conscience and consensus, Connecticut’s Legislature passed legislation on the final day of its session Wednesday that will put photographs and other media that lay bare the graphic and gruesome details of the 12/14 massacre at Sandy Hook School beyond the reach of those employing the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to secure their release. With only four dissenters in both chambers, the state Senate and House voted to exempt these materials not only in the Sandy Hook case, but for all homicides in the state. Governor Dannel P. Malloy has promised to sign the bill. The legislation also calls for the creation of a task force to recommend ways to reconcile the competing interests of victim privacy and the public’s right to know, acknowledging the emerging public view that privacy rights need more protection. One poll published this week showed nearly seven in ten voters opposing the release of crime scene photos from the Sandy Hook School.
The ends of the legislature’s action on Wednesday, however, were more satisfying than the means. While it is true that most people have the decency to want to relinquish whatever rights they may have to view photos and other materials that would victimize for a second time those who lost loved ones on 12/14 and in other murders, it is also true that most people do not want to relinquish their right to transparency in the lawmaking process. The decision by the governor and legislative leaders to negotiate and write the initial language of the bill in secret raised the suspicions and hackles of the staunch FOIA advocates in the media — with good cause. It does not say much for our ossified system of lawmaking when the only way to expedite an important legislative remedy is to turn the lights out. It shows an inherent lack of confidence in elected officials to act quickly and definitively in plain view when an overwhelming majority of voters is asking them simply to do the right thing.
The transparency problems in the processing of this legislation were initially conflated in the debate with the content of the legislation, threatening its passage earlier in the week. However, there is nothing about viewing the bodies of children shot from three to 11 times each, lying in the distressing attitudes of death, that improves transparency in government. There is nothing in the sounds of gunfire and screaming that enhances government by the people and for the people. The only public value of these materials is to the expert investigators, who will publicly report their observations, conclusions and, we hope, recommendations that will help advance public policy. Unfortunately, there is also commercial value in these pictures and recordings to those who cater to morbid interests. These interests have nothing to do with the greater good. And the facility of the Internet for amplifying those commercial rewards would virtually assure that graphic depictions of our community’s most grievous wounds would remain with us forever.
Fortunately, state lawmakers were able to distinguish their qualms about generating laws in secret from the clear and urgent need to protect the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings and other homicides from having their private tragedies exploited for page views and profit on the Internet.