In a decision that has journalists across the state worried, the Kentucky Court of Appeals recently ruled that Hopkinsville can “withhold home addresses, telephone numbers and driver’s license numbers of people listed in arrest reports and criminal complaints” from documents provided to the public.
The ruling seems to be limited in impact but still sets a bad precedent for transparency and accountability.
For starters, withholding identifying information can make it confusing, if not impossible to report on a crime.
Consider this: If someone named John Smith gets arrested, how are you going to know which John Smith was arrested? It could be the John Smith who lives down the road from you, a John Smith from across the county, a John Smith from Louisville or even a John Smith from California.
Without identifying information, journalists’ jobs become that much harder, which isn’t necessarily in the public’s best interest when important breaking news comes up.
Another potential problem caused by the ruling is that public agencies could try to withhold information “just because,” and journalists or others in the public would be left to fight for release of the information.
Our government works better when things are the other way around — when those in the public agency must provide a good reason for redacting specific information.
The Hopkinsville ruling seems to move away from such a transparent system and toward a more secretive order to things for law enforcement.
But on another level, the mere fact that this case went to court may be a symptom of a different problem, one that can cause problems for journalists and the public, no matter what the law says.
If police and journalists can’t get along, recognize each other’s value and respect the other’s rights and duties, then there are going to be misunderstandings, arguments, fights and battles over information.
When I was a reporter and editor at my college newspaper, the Eastern Progress, I actually spent several semesters dealing with redactions in university police reports, and wound up working through differences with police and coming to an agreement that both sides liked.
Skipping over the complicated storyline and legal details, in the end, both sides acknowledged what the other side wanted and, even better, understood why the other side wanted what it wanted.
We worked together to find a way for the newspaper to get the details it needed to serve as a watchdog and provide accurate reports, while giving the police comfortable options for providing that information so they wouldn’t have to worry about handing out sensitive information or blowing an investigation.
The situation at EKU was an ideal one — EKU police respected what the Progress did, recognized the paper’s importance and understood the value of transparency, even when that transparency was uncomfortable.
Based on what I’ve read of the situation in Hopkinsville, it would seem authorities there do not have the same respect or value for the role of journalism in a free society.
Requesting addresses and basic information is not unreasonable, yet the city has fought providing such information and now has received a ruling that threatens to put police and journalists at odds with each other across the state.
There clearly needs to be some bridge-mending in Hop-town, because in the end, whether the law leans one way or another, the free flow of information will be impeded or improved by local relationships long before the law has its say.