Monday, February 2, 2009

Sponsor plans a milder bill on 911 recordings

A freshman state senator who wants to keep news media from broadcasting 911 calls says he is rewriting his bill to satisfy some objections from news organizations, but media lobbying groups say the changes mentioned so far won’t eliminate their opposition.

Republican Sen. John Schickel is a former U.S. marshal and Boone County jailer who says his Senate Bill 30 was inspired by hearing and seeing broadcasts of doomed callers. "It breaks my heart when I hear people, sometimes saying the last words they will ever say, being broadcast on radio and television," Schickel told the Lexington Herald-Leader recently.

Schickel said in an interview with the KOG Blog that he couldn’t recall whether he had heard any such calls on Kentucky stations, but said “I’ve heard alarming things on Kentucky stations,” such as a woman screaming and throwing her children out a window. But he couldn’t say which station, and acknowledged that he might have heard that on a Cincinnati station that serves his home Northern Kentucky or a cable television channel.

“I’m not saying all Kentucky stations do” air such calls, he said. “A lot of them don’t.” Earlier, he said, “Kentucky does exercise more discretion. We have better Southern manners over here.” But he added, “I don’t think that makes the bill unnecessary,” partly because out-of-state stations can obtain 911 recordings and broadcast them to Kentucky audiences. “It’s citizens asking their government to protect them at their most vulnerable time,” he said.

Under the only version of the bill that is public, a police agency could not release a recording, and a court could not release a transcript, without "written permission of the person making the communication and any person who is the subject of the communication." It would also require redaction in transcripts of "personal identifying information, medical information, communications between an agency and a caller relating to medical information, or similar information from the information released . . . information that may hamper or compromise an investigation by a peace officer or law enforcement agency or a fire department [and] information that might tend to prejudice a defendant or potential defendant in a criminal proceeding." Recordings could be released to parties in criminal and civil cases.

Schickel said he is working on a committee substitute bill “to protect First Amendment rights.” He said the new version would allow journalists to seek and get such orders – or even listen to the recordings and make their own notes. He said that would provide the accountability that the Kentucky Press Association and Kentucky Broadcasters Association say is the reason 911 calls need to remain public records.

Schickel said he added the ability to listen to a recording to his working draft of the bill after press-association lobbyist Ashley Pack told him that journalists need the ability to verify that transcripts are accurate. But at its annual convention Jan. 22-23 in Louisville, the KPA Board of Directors took a stronger stand, noting that their newspapers might feel a need to post the recordings on their Web sites. That put the newspapers essentially on the same page as the broadcasters, who want unfettered access to the recordings.

The Kentucky Justice Association, formerly the Kentucky Academy of Trial Attorneys, also opposes the bill. Leigh Ann Thacker, the contract lobbyist for the broadcasters, said that as far as she knows the only lobbies for the bill are law-enforcement groups. The bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 4.

Attorney General Jack Conway reiterated last month that 911 calls are public records. Ruling Dec. 18 in an opinion sought by the Lexington Professional Firefighters, Conway said the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government had improperly refused the union’s request for recordings of certain calls and that transcripts were not enough. The county’s Enhanced 911 office cited privacy as its reason, but Conway wrote, “With the exception of the caller’s name and identifying information, the public interest in regulation is superior to the caller’s privacy interest in the contents of the telephone call.” Conway referred to a similar decision his office earlier this year. Attorney general's opinions have the force of law in open-records and open-meetings matters.

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