Gatepost Editorial: Mass. Sunshine laws more dismal than the weather

Despite the snowfall during FSU’s spring break, this week was known across the country to journalists and public officials as Sunshine Week.

Every year, during this designated week, journalists test their state’s public record access laws to see how easily information can be accessed. These Massachusetts laws are notoriously weak and are often not enforced with sufficient penalties.

These records are often denied using vague language in the laws to justify that decision, or the person requesting the information is required to pay an exorbitant amount of money for the record.

Fuelling the fire for Massachusetts journalists this year was Secretary of State William Galvin’s ruling that police departments can use their discretion as to whether to include names in arrest records – allowing them, in this particular case, to withhold the names of five police officers who were arrested for drunk driving.

Local newspapers, including The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and several GateHouse Media outlets were so appalled by the state of these laws in Massachusetts that they agreed to write coordinating editorials during the same week to put pressure on Galvin and the legislature to increase transparency.

In an interview on WGBH’s Greater Boston, Galvin defended his decision, saying he was following the law, and that there would be a ballot question to potentially amend this law.

The editors of the major newspapers were unconvinced that a ballot question would solve these problems, and neither are the editors of The Gatepost. If information can be withheld from the public based on the opinions of individual police departments, then there might as well not even be a law.

The sanctity of any law depends on its enforcement and its effectiveness. Those who amend, make, or enforce laws should not be the ones who are exempt from following them.

What Massachusetts needs is a law that clearly outlines what is required to be given to the public and to media sources with clear penalties that will deter public officials from bending or breaking this this law.

Transparency is essential for citizens to be able to hold anyone who commits a crime accountable for their actions, and makes possible the availability for the public information that can be essential to their safety or their informed decisions as voters or community members.

Gatepost reporters frequently experience the same lack of transparency and ability to gain records and information in a timely and thorough manner from our own campus police office, which is a concern for student safety and for the public’s right to know about the crimes committed in the community.

For example, most recently, a news reporter requested a police record before spring break, and has still not received that report – well past the 10-day time period allotted for gathering and sending the report.

This is unfortunately not an isolated incident.

This lack of response is not only disrespectful to our student reporters, it is disrespectful to the community at large.

Not allowing us to do our job doesn’t allow the community access to the information they deserve to have.

Massachusetts desperately needs reform in its public access laws. But FSU Campus Police needs to adhere to the law that exists and provide us with the information we have a right to obtain.

The way things are now, it’s a struggle to get this information into the light of day.