Journalists and open-records advocates sharply criticized the state police last year and early this year for a new set of guidelines that, they argued, placed unwarranted limits on the information law enforcement is required to release to the public about alleged crimes and the arrests stemming from them.
The chief complaint was about new language requiring the state police's legal counsel to perform a "balancing test" upon receiving a request for information - weighing the public's right to know against arrestees', victims', or witnesses' right to privacy. Advocates' concern: the language could be used to censor information that state law explicitly mandates to be public.
Today, the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU warns against what it calls a further attempt to restrict the flow of information: a policy that asserts witness statements are "not considered a public record." The ACLU, in a statement, notes that the state's public records law holds that "records or reports reflecting the initial arrest of an adult...shall be public." That would include witness statements.
Blocking the release of witness statements, the organization argues, would mean censoring a core piece of an arrest report and, in turn, limiting the public's ability to judge the merits of an arrest.
This might seem arcane stuff. And in a way, it is. Concerns about privacy, moreover, are understandable. But documents are the lifeblood of journalism. And journalism, if sometimes messy, is essential to a well-functioning democracy.
Moreover, this latest kerfuffle is part of a larger fight, in Rhode Island, over one of the worst public records regimes in the nation. If you care about the press - if you care about holding public officials accountable - you've got to care about this.