At least a half dozen bills still alive in the Oklahoma Legislature this session would prevent the public from learning about things like autopsy reports, birth dates of public employees, municipal court information and records from the Oklahoma Film and Music Office.
“It seems like it’s a battle every year in the Legislature to protect the public's right to know what its government is doing,” said Joey Senat, a media law expert at Oklahoma State University and board member for Freedom of Information Oklahoma. “I guess it’s not a battle that will ever end.”
Last week, a bill by state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City that would keep birth dates of public employees private, sailed through the Senate 44-0 with no discussion or debate.
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association has endorsed the proposal, saying state employees shouldn’t give up the right to privacy when they go to work for the government, but open records proponents say it would hinder the public’s ability to identify potential criminals working for state or local governments.
Other information on public workers, like social security numbers, addresses and telephone numbers, already is kept private.
“We as citizens need to know some basic things about people who work in government,” said Mark Thomas, the director of the Oklahoma Press Association who works with lawmakers to minimize exemptions to the state's Open Records and Open Meetings acts. “There are a lot of great public employees, and I certainly don't think every government worker is a crook. But there are some, and we need to weed them out of positions of governance.
“The only way we can do that is to be able to accurately identify who they are and where they work.”
Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, who initially voted for the bill, said he now has second thoughts.
“Upon further review, I think I would have changed my vote,” said Coffee, R-Oklahoma City. “I think that you have to have access to that information, and the First Amendment matters, like all of the Constitution does, and we need to preciously guard that.”
State Rep. Randy Terrill, who is carrying Leftwich’s bill in the House, said he believes a compromise might be reached where birth dates of public employees could be obtained in cases involving criminal activity, corruption or wrongdoing.
“The public has a right to know in certain circumstances, but in other cases they may not,” said Terrill, R-Moore. “It's our duty to strike the appropriate balance, while erring on the side of openness and transparency, if possible.”
Another bill currently alive would allow district attorneys to shut off access to autopsy reports, including details about how a person was killed and injuries the victim may have suffered.
Jessica Brown, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, said such information often is critical to an investigation and allows detectives to determine if tips or leads are credible.
“Is it more important to know the bloody, gory details or is it more important for law enforcement to have all the tools they need to solve the crime and keep other people from becoming victims?” Brown said.
But Senat discounted Brown’s position as a “bumper-sticker argument.”
“I don’t think anyone has any specifics to show it would prevent crimes from being solved,” Senat said. “It seems just as reasonable that providing more information to the public would help you catch the criminal.”
Ultimately, Thomas said the necessity for people in positions of power in government to be responsible to the citizens is one of the founding principles of the country.
“That’s why the United States broke away from the king and started a new country. That principle has not changed,” Thomas said. “That’s why the people deserve access to records that the government keeps about them.”