WITT: Bill strikes at heart of govt. transparency

Published 3:11 pm Tuesday, January 5, 2021

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A bill filed for the 2021 Kentucky legislative session, RS BR595, strikes at the very heart of transparency in government.

The bill, filed by Rep. John Blanton (R, District 92) has been judged by legal experts as another one of those solutions searching for a problem and would unalterably damage open records laws and create an unacceptable level of state secrecy.

It is so odd that members of the party that continually claims to want less intrusive government are so quick to propose laws that work to make government less accessible to the people and to provide ways to assure those people that government is not intruding unnecessarily into their lives.

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This bill would criminalize any newspaper — or government agency — posting the name of elected judicial officials including the state Attorney General and law enforcement officers.

It is typically not necessary, or even desirable, to post deeply personal information about any of these public figures and news outlets are circumspect about doing so, especially relating to addresses, phone numbers, family members, etc.

Perhaps Blanton does not realize that approval of this bill would require that he remove identifying information about himself, including his name, from his campaign website.

The LRC (Legislative Research Commission) would not be permitted to publish his name as a sponsor of the bill.

His local newspaper would not be able to publish a story if it mentioned his name as a supporter of the bill.

Kentucky courts would have to remove the names, photographs, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of elected judges and sheriffs from websites that provide vital information to the public.

The bill would conceal information concerning disciplinary records and investigations into law enforcement conduct.

The bill makes identifiable information about judicial officers, prosecutors and law enforcement officers exempt from the Open Records Act. It defines “dissemination” as “electronically publishing, posting, or otherwise disclosing information to an Internet site, forum, or other medium for other persons to access or view.”

That phrase “otherwise disclosing” has some very harrowing implications and would likely cause newspapers and other legal outlets for news to tread so cautiously that the result would be no news at all, for fear of being held in violation of the law.

The closing section of the bill states: “Whereas because of the ease of publishing personal information over the Internet and social media, and the increase in death threats and deaths to judges and other public officials, an emergency is declared to exist, and this Act takes effect upon it passage and approval by the Governor or upon its otherwise becoming law.”

Pretty scary, huh? Except that there has been no increase in the deaths of judges through illegal means in this state that can be documented. Ergo, there is no “emergency” to support this bill.

Judicial officials and law enforcement officials have demanding jobs and they are occasionally subjected to threats, both real and perceived. And they deserve protection, even to the extent of assuring that very personal information regarding them and their families.

But this bill is tantamount to using a chain saw to sharpen a pencil. It should die in committee and never see the light of day.

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at chuck740@bellsouth.net.