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State lawmakers shrink access to security-related information


MARCH 14, 2003

Bill Chamberlin,
University of Florida, 352-273-1095

Joel Campbell, Brigham Young University, 801-422-2125

ARLINGTON, Va. — In the face of terrorism threats, many state lawmakers are locking up government records that deal with everything from security-response plans to criminal investigations, according to research by the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida.

The result is fewer states allow public access to sensitive security and law enforcement information. Researchers found state lawmakers have enacted dozens of changes that limit information since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The good news is that while access advocates aren’t thrilled with some of the restrictive laws, the research findings show there hasn’t been as much closure of information at the state level as some suspected,” said Dr. Bill Chamberlin, director of the Brechner Citizen Access Project.

When examining the shrinking public access to records, project researchers assigned sunshine ratings for each state from “sunny” for the most open to “dark” for the most closed.

The findings were released during the 2003 National Freedom of Information Day Conference at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va. For a complete list of state rankings log onto

Overall, Tennessee, Montana, Hawaii, Florida, Delaware and Alaska got a “cloudy” or somewhat closed rating because either those state’s laws are so vague that they would give authorities substantial discretion to close records or because lawmakers have closed many categories of records.

“Just a few states had terrorism terms in laws before 9/11,” Chamberlin said. “The underlying assumption of the advisory board seems to be that states without specific terrorism-related statutes allow more public access.

“Some states had very broad security and safety language including Montana, Hawaii and Tennessee,” Chamberlin said. Those states were rated as allowing low levels of public access. In other cases, multiple changes in the law have decreased access in states such as Florida that have had a reputation for government openness.

Generally, the Citizen Access Project advisory board gave the highest sunshine ratings to states without specific terrorism- or security-related public records exemptions. About 16 states received a “sunny with clouds” overall ranking. Researchers said records in about half the states were neither more open than closed and were given a “partly cloudy” rating. No state received the highest access rating in the overall category or in any of the eight security-related state law categories researchers reviewed.

When rating access to records about preparedness and security risks, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee and the District of Columbia, got a “nearly dark” rating. For example, Ohio public records law changes, enacted in 2002, exempt the security records of any public body and defines "security record" as any information used to "prevent, mitigate, or respond to acts of terrorism."

Colorado, Pennsylvania and Tennessee also received low rankings for access to records that include security-involved personal information.

Members of the project’s advisory board who participated in the study include: Sandy Davidson, associate professor, University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism; Bob J. Freeman, executive director, New York State Committee on Open Government; Harry Hammitt, editor/publisher, Access Reports; Frosty Landon, executive director, Virginia Coalition for Open Government; Ian Marquand, special projects coordinator, KPAX TV and Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee chair; Linda Lightfoot, executive editor , The (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate; Kevin Goldberg, associate, Cohn and Marks; Anne Mullin O'Connor, Indiana State Public Access Counselor; Patrice McDermott, assistant director, Office of Government Relations, American Library Association.

The Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project is funded by Orlando, Fla., broadcast executive Marion Brechner, but the research is conducted under the supervision of Dr. Bill F. Chamberlin, the Joseph L. Brechner Eminent Scholar in the College of Journalism and Communication, at the University of Florida. The Project also received funding from the Knight Foundation, headquartered in Miami.

Joel Campbell, assistant professor in the Department of Communications at Brigham Young University, compiled this report.

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