Thursday, February 5, 2009

Senate panel OKs 911 bill; fight to be in House

A bill to keep 911 emergency calls from being broadcast on radio or television, or posted on Web sites, sailed through the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, heading for likely easy passage on the Senate floor.

“We’re not even going to fight it on the floor,” said David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, which opposes the bill. KPA and other opponents are already preparing to oppose the bill in the state House, where they believe they have a better chance of blocking it, he said.

The House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans. All six Republicans on the Senate committee voted for the bill, with two Democrats abstaining. Two other Democrats were absent. "We may have lost this battle but we are still confident that we can win the war," said Gary White, executive director of the Kentucky Broadcasters Association, "Once the legislation moves to the House it should lose its steam."

Republican Sen. John Schickel of Northern Kentucky, the bill's sponsor, told his colleagues that he believes broadcast stations often use 911 tapes to sensationalize coverage of tragic events. His bill would prevent release of the actual tapes, but allow transcripts. "Too often, we hear victims of violent crime and other tragic circumstances being aired on our national and local media, further adding to their victimization," Schickel told the committee.

Opponents such as the KPA and KBA argued the bill would infringes on constitutional protection of a free press. Nancy Cox, an anchor for Lexington's WLEX-TV, told the panel, "A free press is not always convenient. A free press is not always comfortable. But it is always necessary in a democracy. I understand the good intentions behind this bill. I don't argue with that at all. But I need you to know that we in the media have good intentions as well, by and large."

The revised bill would prohibit broadcasting of 911 recordings, but allow release of transcripts and allow reporters to listen to recordings to verify the accuracy of the transcripts. However, it would not allow the release of the recordings themselves without permission of both the person calling and the agency recording. "The bill allows emergency services to redact all identifying information (name, address, phone number) so unless you can recognize the voice you will not know who to contact to request permission to broadcast the audio on your station and or website," White said in an e-mail.

State police and officials of the 911 call center in Lexington testified Thursday in the bill's favor. Attorney General Jack Conway recently ruled that the call center improperly withheld recordings of calls requested by local firefighters. "The proponents played up the 'sympathy' angle," White wrote. "However, they could not produce one single instance in which the broadcast of a 911 call, by a Kentucky station, was detrimental to the caller or other parties involved."

In Kentucky, 911 calls are public records, available to reporters and ordinary citizens alike. According to a partial survey by KPA, 911 calls are public records in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia. They are not public records in Mississippi, Missouri, New York and South Dakota. Transcripts only are available to the public in Arizona. The calls are not public until after an investigation is complete in Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington.

For a full text of the bill, see Links of Interest below.

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