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Public records for media but not for you?

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Published:2020-02-07 State
Public records for media but not for you?    Print Snohomish Times    
Public records for media but not for you?

By Jason Mercier

When a bill was proposed (HB 1888) this year to help protect state employee unions from an ongoing battle with the Freedom Foundation, the media was strong in opposition against blowing a hole in the state’s public records act. Sadly, it looks like some in the fourth estate are now willing to play Solomon and cut access to public records in half by allowing some public records to be hidden from the public as long as they are still able to receive them.
The House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee adopted an amended version of HB 1888 today, exempting certain public employee information (like Date of Birth) from disclosure to the public while still allowing the media to receive the information. It appears the bill is using the definition of media found in RCW 5.68.010 (5).

It is difficult to understand why government employee information should be exempt from disclosure to the public while still allowing every registered voter's name, address and DOB to be released to anyone that asks. If the concern was truly about identity theft, it makes little sense to grant the exemption in HB 1888 while allowing the same information to still be released via the state’s voter database.
Some have said that this information should be exempt from the state’s public records law to protect those at risk from domestic violence, etc. Rather than blowing a hole in the people’s equal access to public records, lawmakers should instead provide targeted protections building on the current confidentiality program run by the Secretary of State.
There are two very important things to remember about the state’s renowned public records act:
1. RCW 42.56.030: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.”

2. RCW 42.56.080: “… Agencies shall not distinguish among persons requesting records, and such persons shall not be required to provide information as to the purpose for the request …"
One thing I don’t find in either of those statutes is providing the media greater access to public records than the people. In fact, instead there is an explicit prohibition against distinguishing between public records requesters.
It is a dangerous path to start treating the media differently than citizens on the right to public records. If a record is public, it should be public. If necessary, expand targeted protections to those who need them without carving up access to public records. United our chances for transparent government is strong. Divided leads us down a path of darkness.




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