The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette ran an editorial last Sunday which had the pictures of all of our area legislators. Most were shown under the caption “For Secret Government”. Four were shown under the caption “For Open Government”. Once again, this newspaper gets it very wrong and in the process manages to demean the intelligence of its readership.
The reason the Journal ran the Sunday editorial was because all of the major newspapers around the State were asked to put pressure on the Legislature not to override the Governor’s veto of a bill. We will be in Session on Tuesday, November 20th, at which time several vetos the Governor issued earlier in the year will be brought down for an override vote.
One of these bills deals with legislation which easily passed both the House and the Senate last year with major bi-partisan support. The legislation was caused by a lawsuit filed by the Indianapolis Star (the morning newspaper in Indy) seeking to get access to all of the hard drives on each of the legislators’ laptop computers. The lawsuit was filed because the newspapers had been frustrated in their attempt to use the State’s Open Records Department (a division of the Governor’s Office) to obtain the hard drives. The head of that Department had ordered the House and Senate to comply with the newspaper’s request.
The problem: there is a little thing called the separation of powers in our system of government. The Executive branch does not order the Legislative branch to do anything. Now, this is not an issue of a turf battle. There is a very good reason why we keep our executive, legislative, and judicial branches separate, and provide each of them with certain powers which balances each branch of government fairly equally. It prevents one branch from becoming too powerful; it keeps the people’s voice heard in government; it prevents unfair abuses of power.
As I said, as a result of the lawsuit by the Indianapolis Star, legislation was passed which made it clear that the Open Records Law enforceable by the Governor’s employee did not apply to the Legislature. The intent was not to avoid public access to the Legislature’s business; the intent was to protect the privacy of constituent communications and to preserve the right of the Legislature to enforce its own rules separate from the Governor’s office.
Many people contact their legislators seeking help for what are often very personal, private problems. Perhaps it is a medical situation that would be embarrassing to them if made public; perhaps it is a problem with the State Department of Revenue; perhaps a problem for one of their family members. There are any number of issues that my constituents do not want to be made public. I believe it would have a chilling effect upon the free communication with my constituents if they knew that the Journal Gazette could come in and view all of the information that that constituent had believed was confidential when provided to my office.
What the newspapers really want is to see if there is any dirt they can get on the Legislators. They really aren’t interested in looking for anything else.
At any rate, the legislation protecting constituent communications and other Legislative information passed overwhelming, but then was vetoed by the Governor. That veto now faces an override vote in both the House and Senate on November 20th.
I’m not sure whether the veto will be overridden or not. However, if it is, the Legislature must move quickly to establish rules which allow free and open access to our records except where confidential matters exist. Such access will not and must not include my computer’s hard drive, nor my e-mails. To allow otherwise would be tantamount to giving the newspaper the right to tap my phone. E-mail is a new, modern method of communication that allows quicker, less expensive access to your legislator. Just because we have created a better way to communicate doesn’t mean our privacy rights have changed.
This issue will come down to one of perception. It is important for the Indiana legislature, and its membership, to articulate our position so as not to allow the media to misrepresent what is actually going on. I am for open and accessible government, and to open up the process of government to as many people as possible. That means televising sessions and committee meetings; that means making oneself available to your constituents; that means making our official records available and easily accessible on the net; that means returning the calls of the media when they want information. It does not mean that the media can go through all of your laundry in a vain search for a smelly sock. There is a difference, and I hope the readers of this column can see it.
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