States Move to Curtail Access to 911 Calls
Posted in Public Records

The Associated Press reported this week of efforts underway in several states to limit access to 911 calls under state sunshine laws.  According to the report, legislatures in Alabama, Ohio, and Wisconsin are considering bills that would pull back from the traditional availability of 911 recordings.  Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wyoming currently exempt 911 calls from the operation of public records statutes.

In Alabama, HB 159 passed the Alabama House earlier this month.  The bill, if enacted, would prevent the disclosure of 911 calls to the public without a prior order from a judge, who would consider "whether right of the public to the release of the recording outweighs the privacy interests of the individual who made the 911 call or any persons involved in the facts or circumstances relating to the 911 call."

Under SB 105, a bill introduced this session in the Ohio General Assembly, 911 calls would remain public records but members of the broadcast media would be barred from "play[ing] a recording of a 9-1-1 call that has been made available as a public record over a broadcast medium such as radio, television, or the internet."  Transcripts of 911 calls could be read over the air.  Violation of the provision would subject the broadcaster to a $10,000 fine.

In Wisconsin, AB 612 as originally introduced would prevent disclosure of 911 audio recordings, with transcripts remaining available for copying.  The bill was subsequently amended in committee to permit inspection but not copying of 911 recordings.

These bills appear to be driven by the reaction of some to isolated editorial choices made by television stations.  As the AP article recounts, the sponsors of these bills cite anecdotal accounts of a person who suffered a traumatic loss later hearing a 911 recording made in connection with the loss.  The problem with these moves to curtail access to 911 calls is that they allow the tail of a few questionable decisions by news editors to wag the dog of access to government records generally.  Police incident reports, arrest reports, and 911 recordings provide important sources of information for reporters to cover local law enforcement agencies, and 911 recordings in particular provide a way of monitoring the responsiveness of 911 call centers.  

The principle that government records should be freely available, no less so than the First Amendment's protections to free speech, comes with consequences.  Sometimes people say things that hurt; sometimes reporters broadcast stories their viewers don't like.  However, these consequences should not cause legislatures to lose sight of the greater societal value of government transparency.

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