Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label NFOIC. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NFOIC. Show all posts

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Upcoming NFOIC Summit features access all-stars


Access-to-information (ATI, RTK, FOI) enthusiasts are invited and encouraged to attend the online 2022 summit of the National Freedom of Information Coalition on October 18-20.

My FOI seminar class and I will be there.

From the summit home page at Whova, this year's program "will include two hands-on training seminars and over a dozen of sessions this year. Hear real stories from real people, learn the best approaches to enforcing FOI Laws, examine the public's right now in the era of polarization, and more."

Summit participants include experts and champions of transparency, open government, and First Amendment rights. They also include journalists, public employees, govtech and civictech individuals, and anyone who are interested in democracy and accountability."

Speakers include (but are not limited to) some heroes of mine in the academy, notably David Cuillier, University of Arizona; Daxton "Chip" Stewart, Texas Christian University; A, Jay Wagner, Marquette University; Margaret Kwoka, Ohio State University; and Amy Sanders, University of Texas at Austin.

The lineup also features some FOI legends who have worn many hats, including Frank LoMonte, now at CNN and most recently executive director of the Brechner Center; Michael Morisy of MuckRock; Colleen Murphy of the Connecticut FOI Commission; Tom Susman of the American Bar Association and previously of Ropes & Gray; and Daniel Libit, founder of The Intercollegiate and Sportico and tireless advocate for accountability in college athletics.

This year's agenda covers ORA/OMA litigation and enforcement, college athlete publicity rights, messaging apps, doxxing, law enforcement video, legislative transparency, and much more.

I also look forward to seeing the latest research, which wins consideration for publication in the Journal of Civic Information (for which I'm privileged to serve on the Editorial Board).

Registration is affordable and online here. #FOISummit22.

If you've read this far, you might be interested as well in a free public series of online classes recently announced by the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), "Open Meeting Law: How Newsrooms Respond to Executive Session Secrecy."

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Family in fatal police shooting demands transparency

Fall River Police Department
Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel (CC BY-SA 4.0)
At a rally in Fall River, Mass., on January 15, the family of Anthony Harden, who was killed by police in November, demanded transparency in the investigation into the shooting.

News reports state that Harden, 30, became involved in a physical altercation with two police officers trying to arrest him at his home.  Harden was confined to the home with a GPS bracelet while charges were pending in an assault case, WBZ reported in December.  According to police, Harden repeatedly stabbed at one of the officers with a metal object, possibly a steak knife, and the other officer shot and killed him.

Bristol County District Attorney (DA) Thomas M. Quinn III investigated and announced in December that police had complied with the department use-of-force policy, WBZ reported.  But the family has not yet seen the full record of the investigation, the Fall River Herald News reported after the "Justice for Anthony" rally on Saturday, and the family alleges inconsistencies between a private autopsy and the DA's conclusion.

In light of the police accountability movement that erupted in recent years in the United States, my Freedom of Information (FOI) Law seminar in the fall semester took up law enforcement transparency as a special topic.  Sifting the voluminous writing on police accountability in scholarly, NGO, and popular literature, I found, probably unsurprisingly, that lack of transparency is often a volatile fuel of misunderstanding and vehement distrust between people and police in these matters.  Worse, it doesn't always have to be.

At risk of generalizing to the detriment of the many, many police officers and departments that uphold the law with integrity, there remains the conventional wisdom that police are notorious for resistance to transparency.  My own youthful interest in FOI law was spurred by, and, in fact, a factor in my decision to go to law school in the 1990s was, frustration dealing with the Rockbridge County Sheriff's Office when I was a student journalist in Virginia.  

FOI "audits," occasionally carried out by media and NGOs to test state open records compliance, invariably test police, because a characteristic reluctance to comply with the law, ironically, juxtaposes so sharply with the urgent life and liberty interests of persons subject to police power.  The classic tension in this vein is nicely encapsulated by Amy Sherrill's report on police compliance for a 1999 Arkansas audit.  The piece might as well have been written yesterday; secrecy in policing is a persistent devil.

For my October class, besides some introductory material such as the law enforcement exemption in the federal FOI Act (FOIA) (subpart (b)(7)), after which the states have modeled many statutory open records exemptions, I assigned:

  • State ex rel. Standifer v. City of Cleveland, 2021 Ohio 3100 (Ct. App. Sept. 3, 2021);
  • Emanuel Powell, Unlawful Silence: St. Louis Families’ Fight for Records After the Killing of a Loved One by Police, 57 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 65 (2020); and
  • Somebody: Police, The Intercept (Apr. 14, 2020) (podcast ep. 3).

There is so much to unpack on this topic that I had to be judicious.  The Standifer case, arising from an investigation into police violence in Connecticut, frames the subject with First Amendment access implications and the balance between police transparency and the rights of persons named in police records, including police officers themselves.

I can't say enough about the Powell article.  An attorney with ArchCity Defenders, Emanuel Powell related a personal and powerful narrative with a well informed and reasoned call for reform.

The entirety of The Intercept podcast, "Somebody" season, is worth the time.  For this class, I chose the "Police" episode, especially for its audio recordings of a mourning mother, Shapearl Wells, desperately seeking answers in the death of her son, and what she faces with police who are sometimes understanding but more often defensive, guarded, and harsh with her.  The audio medium demonstrates, in a way a cold transcript could not, the communicative disconnect between Wells and police, and the insult, however unintended, of unnecessary opacity upon an already tragic injury.  Somebody was a joint project of the Invisible Institute and comes with, especially useful for secondary school, a 10-unit teaching guide

There are some fascinating online clearinghouses on police data, such as NGO Mapping Police Violence and the Invisible Institute's Citizens Police Data Project, the latter focusing on Chicago, having begun as a collaboration with the University of Chicago.  The annual program of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) in fall 2021 featured informative sessions on police transparency reform and tracking police misconduct records (latter trailer only).  Tomorrow, I plan to attend virtually a plenary panel of the Communications Law Forum of the American Bar Association, "Racial Injustice Exposed on Camera: Police Transparency and Government Access in a Viral World."

I am open to persuasion on the basis of what I might not know about the investigation into Harden's death.  But on the face of it, I see no reason at this point for withholding investigative records, especially the autopsy.  Law enforcement authorities sometimes fear record release because it might compromise the public's position in seemingly inevitable litigation.  But discovery will bring the evidence to light anyway, and public entities shouldn't get to hold their cards tightly when accountability for lost life is at stake.

It's especially troubling that on the Bristol County DA website, there is, at the time of this writing, not a single mention of Anthony Harden.   The last two press releases from the office, before and after announcement of the conclusion in the Harden investigation, regard sentencing in other matters, touting the DA's success.  The 11-page report on the Harden matter, described by The Herald News, I cannot find online, not at the DA's site, nor from the State Police Detective Unit that conducted the investigation.

So one might understand how the Harden family, and families similarly situation around the country, might worry that the political heads of law enforcement are concerned more with reelection than with justice.  Transparency would not necessarily solve all ills, but it might diffuse tension and enhance public confidence by some measure.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Abolition of police qualified immunity in Colorado, accountable development lead in FOI Summit topics

Transparency and accountability in contexts including police reform and economic development were on the agenda at the (virtual) annual summit (#FOIsummit) of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) late last week.  The conference continues on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Rep. Herod
The most provocative panel was on police reform, focusing on California, Colorado, and New York.  Colorado State Rep. Leslie Herod spoke with conviction about the raft of reforms signed into law in Colorado on Juneteenth 2020.  Included was the state's landmark elimination of qualified immunity for police.  Herod explained that the 2020 protest movement sparked an opportunity in bipartisan alignment.  The libertarian Cato Institute, she said, would like to have seen qualified immunity for public officials abolished across the board.  Police were a start.  Read more about the Colorado law from Jay Schweikert at Cato and from Russell Berman in The Atlantic.  The session is available on YouTube.

 

The conference's first general session focused on economic development and offered up another compelling colloquy.  Nothing was settled, but advocates on both sides of the transparency problem pressed their best arguments and pulled no punches.  

Greg LeRoy, executive director of D.C.-based NGO Good Jobs First, emphasized the public money at stake in economic development projects and lamented localities' complicity in the empowerment of unaccountable corporate powers over public services.  He had data from one representative development project showing public investment that could not possibly generate a justifiable return.  Such a transaction is none other than a transfer of public wealth to corporate shareholders, he said.  Good Jobs First has model legislation.  

Bryant (RLB)
Meanwhile Ronnie L. Bryant, principal of consulting firm Ronnie L. Bryant, LLC, pleaded passionately that troubled urban centers throughout America, and the people living in them, don't stand a chance at economic opportunity without offering incentives to private investors.  As moderator Dalia Thornton wrangled the pair to common ground, Bryant proved willing to guarantee transparency before and after negotiation on a deal, but not during.

Caught in the crossfire, Albuquerque, N.M., chief administrative officer Sarita Nair has worked previously on both sides of the divide, and now, she said, is the policymaker having to balance priorities.  I agreed with her sentiment recognizing that, at least, we've come a long way from the bad ol' days of heck-no, everything's-a-trade-secret FOIA exemption.


Other conference topics include access to protected health information during the pandemic and virtual public meetings.  Look for more video replays on the NFOIC YouTube channel.