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Concerns Expressed About Privacy/Right To Know Balance In New Law

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By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The president of a Connecticut open government group on Wednesday questioned the makeup of a task force that’s charged with recommending to state lawmakers how to balance victim privacy with the public’s right to know, in the wake of the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

James Smith, a task force member and the president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said he’s concerned the overall membership of the 17-person group appears slanted in favor of keeping certain information from public release.

“It looks to me it’s weighted on one side over the other,” Smith said during the second meeting of the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know.

But Don DeCesare, a representative of the Connecticut Broadcasters Association and the panel’s co-chairman, said, “It’s a little early to count noses.” He said he hopes the panel can unanimously approve a set of recommendations for the General Assembly to consider by Jan. 1.

Smith also raised concerns about how the task force was created. A provision to create the group was tucked into a last-minute bill designed to block the public release of crime scene photos and video evidence from the Dec. 14 massacre at the Newtown school. Task force members were given the broad charge of making recommendations regarding “the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office originally bypassed the traditional legislative process and worked behind the scenes with legislative leaders, the state’s top prosecutor and others to draft a bill to address concerns raised by the Sandy Hook families. Twenty first graders and six educators were killed in the mass shooting.

“They went around the legislative process. There were no public hearings and so we have this legislation,” Smith said. “It doesn’t surprise me that we’re having trouble with the legislation because it was all done in secret.”

Besides creating the task force, the new law blocked the public release of photographs, film, video and other images in all homicides, so long as the records “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim’s surviving family members.”

Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven and a task force member, said it wasn’t the intention of state officials to craft the bill secretly. He said the Sandy Hook families came to legislators at the end of the session, after the public hearings were completed, with concerns that crime scene photos would be publicly released. Documentary maker Michael Moore had called for their release, arguing the photos would persuade people of the need for gun control.

“No one even thought about this issue,” said Fasano, who called the final legislation “a reasonable stop-gap measure.”

The task force meets again Sept. 4.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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