By Vincent Duffy, RTDNF Chairman
What part of “public” don’t you understand?
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee in the Michigan legislature came very close to doing a colossally dumb thing. Instead, they decided to do a regular dumb thing.
It started, as most of these things do, with the best of intentions. Representative Ellen Cogan Lipton, a Democrat from Huntington Woods, Michigan, thinks it’s not cool that ambulance chasing attorneys comb through traffic accident reports and contact injured individuals offering to represent them. Her solution? HB 4770, a bill that limits the access to those traffic accident reports, those “public documents,” to only a select group of people during the first 30 days after the accident.
As Lipton saw it, the only people with a valid reason to see these traffic reports during the first 30 days are the drivers and passengers involved and their family members, law enforcement and prosecutors, insurance companies, governmental traffic organizations such as the NHTSA, and the media. The bill defined “the media” as newspaper employees, and radio or television station employees of a FCC-licensed station.
As you might expect, there was an immediate criticism of this rather limited and archaic definition of the news media. Former newspapers that now only operate online, student publications, the Associated Press, a statewide news service that operates online, and all those Patch.com sites would suddenly find themselves excluded from the list of “approved” media. The exclusion of Patch.com is a little ironic, since the online publications strive to be hyper-local and have no staffs to speak of, and so their reliance on local police reports for things like traffic accidents is pretty strong.
Predictably, and thankfully, state journalism and open government organizations raised their protest flags and so the House Judiciary Committee expanded the definition of a newspaper to include news organizations that only publish online. There were also promises by committee members to add more amendments in the House if necessary to further expand the definition of “news organizations.” But as forwarded by the committee for a second reading, this bill still bans public access to motor vehicle accident reports for 30 days. In essence, it bans the public from gaining access to a public document.
If you think trying to define who is a journalist and who is not a journalist is tricky, just imagine what Freedom of Information requests will be like when we try to legislate who in the public is worthy of access to public information and who in the public is not. Newsgathering organizations may pat themselves on the back for fighting to broaden the definition of journalists wide enough that all of us in the news business have access to these documents, but they are public documents.
We shouldn’t be satisfied until public documents are available to all of the public equally, and should resist any attempts to create special classes for public documents. If Representative Lipton believes attorneys should not be permitted to contact traffic accident victims and pitch their services, let her fight that action, not the information. I suspect she will run up against similar free speech arguments. But telling a certain class of the public “you aren’t allowed to see these public documents yet” is not good law.
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