Thursday, July 17, 2014

Body blow two to S.C. FOI

A few weeks ago, it was a ruling by South Carolina's Supreme Court saying that public bodies were not required to post meeting agendas that punched a hole in South Carolina's FOI law.

Now it has ruled that autopsy reports are medical records not subject to disclosure. (PDF of ruling.) While I felt the last ruling was defensible because of a poorly worded law, this one is just bad public policy. As reported in the Sumter case in question, the autopsy report the newspaper eventually got elsewhere seemed to contradict the police explanation in a man's shooting.

This is one where I think Justice Costa Pleiconas got it right in dissent -- that other parts of state law indicate the intent is that these be public.

As Justice Kay Hearn said, it's a matter for the Legislature. And maybe two in a row will persuade newsrooms in the state that it's poor strategy to do most of the FOI drum beating largely one week a year. As the tough road to change the law in other areas the past two years shows, this is a battle of attrition.

For starters, every newsroom should include specific FOI questions on every candidate questionnaires going out to legislative candidates this election season. They should include these two FOI issues. Don't give any room to vapidly prevaricate.

And then work with the press association to assemble a short weekly roundup of FOI issues in the state. It already has the info in its newsletter -- every paper and news website in the state should run it, perhaps under a suitably in your face head like Where you were denied vital information this week.

Broadcasters have tended not to be as involved in these issues just because for many, if it bleeds, it leads, and press release journalism or the quick official statement is the M.O. (Though it's nice to see that changing a bit as some consultants see an opening in positioning stations as "investigating for you" -- for a few ratings books at least.)

Newspapers have tended to try to play the clubby game at the Statehouse. On one hand, they do push for more openness. On the other, they are deathly scared the Legislature will take away their sales tax exemption.

But it's time to be more aggressive. The FOI, despite its vaunted opening language, is being hacked to bits from rulings like this and from open defiance from agencies like Columbia police who refuse to make copies of reports available for inspection, as the law allows. (That's another situation where I fear the court might overbroadly interpret the law's limited privacy exemption.)

If you believe in public information, it's time to put up or shut up.

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