IN OUR OPINION

Unwarranted secrecy
Attorney general's position is ill-conceived

[Worcester] Sunday Telegram


March 7, 1999

It is regrettable that, once again, state Attorney General Thomas A. Reilly has moved to restrict access to public records.

The Public Records Law, detailed in chapters 4 and 66 of the General Laws, is intended to give citizens full access to the vast majority of official documents.

It has been a powerful tool for open, clean government.

By design, it allows only a few exceptions - notably, when making material public would prejudice an ongoing criminal investigation, compromise bidding and property acquisitions or constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Nonetheless, Reilly recently declined to enforce orders by the supervisor of public records that Worcester and Auburn police departments must make citizen complaints against police officers public.

Now, the attorney general has filed legislation that would undermine the Public Records Law by barring access to restraining orders issued by the courts.

Prompting the move was Reilly's concern about a telephone survey by The Fatherhood Coalition on the issue of restraining orders issued at the Gardner District Court in 1997.

There has been no indication that the group has misused the information. Moreover, data on court-issued restraining orders routinely has been made public across the state for years without mishap.

Nonetheless, Reilly fears members of the group might "interrogate" women who secured restraining orders. He said he was motivated by concern over the issue of domestic violence.

Indeed, law enforcement officials - including the attorney general - should take aggressive measures against domestic batterers. But it is far-fetched, at best, to equate an unsolicited telephone call with interrogation.

If public information is used -- by the fathers group or anyone else - to harass or intimidate women who secured restraining orders, the guilty parties certainly should be pursued and prosecuted.

Reilly's assumption that the information will be misused flies in the face of bedrock principles of our justice system, which is founded on the presumption of innocence and rejects "prior restraint" measures directed at anticipated wrongdoing.

The legislature should reject Reilly's proposal.

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