We're taking a stand to protect California's Public Records Act

UPDATE, June 19, 2013: This piece updates to include a link to a letter signed by California news leaders.

NEW YORK – I'm sitting in a room this week on the sixth floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism facing a gray wall with these 109-year-old words from newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer stenciled upon it: “The power to mold the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”

And sometimes, even in small, subtle ways, it is in our hands – in the here and now. In California, this is one of those moments.

Without a single hearing, lawmakers in Sacramento are attempting to eviscerate the public’s ability to get information that, by all rights, belongs to all of us.

A bill on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would dramatically alter California’s Public Records Act, making certain provisions optional. If signed into law, local government agencies would be able to shoot down requests for public information without a written explanation. Bureaucrats could stall other requests with no set deadline, fulfilling them only when and if it becomes convenient for the government.

And they wouldn't have to provide data in electronic format, even if it already exists that way. Electronic records are often the quickest way to analyze information; reporters trained to look for such things can pinpoint trends and aberrations hidden in the millions of rows and columns.

News organizations and editorial boards across the state are covering this development. As the San Jose Mercury News eloquently noted this week, without the state’s public records law, citizens would be in the dark about everything from broken bolts on the Bay Bridge to attempts to cover up the sexual abuse of students in an East Bay school district. The same editorial noted that the decision to keep electronic data out of the hands of reporters would effectively allow government officials to “hide alarming numbers in reams of paper.”

Not every news leader thinks we should take a stand. One high-ranking newspaper editor wrote to me privately yesterday suggesting that it is not our role to participate in the news. It’s our role to cover it.

But the story deeply impacts not just the public’s right to know, but also the media’s. So rather than write a news story and claim we’re being objective about it, we may as well be transparent, honest and clear. We don’t like these changes. They are not in the public interest, and we think they ultimately damage the democratic process.

By public access standards, California journalists already are handicapped. We envy our colleagues in states like Florida and Wisconsin where stricter public records laws allow reporters great advantages in telling stories about racial profiling and crime trends – stories that aren’t as doable in California given the current limits of our law.

In addition to writing this piece, we are helping bring together news leaders to sign a letter to the governor expressing our objections. The California Newspaper Publishers Association already has done this, and we support that effort. But CIR is not a newspaper and neither are our broadcast, online, nonprofit and radio partners. So we’re convening a coalition of news organizations from all platforms to rally against these drastic and dangerous changes to the law.

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