Three bills to watch

Bipartisan measures would boost protections for freedom of information

Colorado’s state Legislature reconvened Wednesday, and while this session does not promise to be as boisterous or controversial as the last, it should have highlights. Among those are three bills that, taken together, amount to a bipartisan push to bolster the state’s commitment to defending freedom of information.

One would strengthen Colorado’s shield law for reporters. Another would set an expiration date for data from surveillance photos. The third would make fees for research and information retrieval from government agencies uniform statewide. All three should be approved.

(There also is a bill for a federal shield law in the U.S. Senate, co-sponsored by, among others, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.)

On the surface, these can seem like trivial or esoteric issues. They are not.

The measure addressing photos goes straight to the question (see: National Security Agency) as to the distinction between legitimate surveillance and nosy rummaging. Sponsored by Douglas County Republican state Rep. Polly Lawrence, it would require that any images taken by government-operated surveillance cameras be destroyed after six months.

That should allow plenty of time for the proper authorities to use the images as intended. What it would prevent is establishment of a permanent database showing who was where when without any associated crime or threat. And while that might seem paranoid or futuristic, it is, or soon will be, possible.

The bill about fees is from state Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton. It would establish uniform statewide rules for how much state government agencies could charge for research and copying public records. As things stand now, there is no consistency from one office to another, only a hodgepodge of judicial precedents and local rules. And with that, a given agency effectively can limit public access by charging exorbitant fees, treat records requests as a profit center or waste taxpayers’ resources by accommodating any and all requests at no charge.

The idea behind Salazar’s bill is to prevent those kinds of abuses through clarity and uniformity. Fees should not be a means by which government agencies can hide information, nor should they be so low as to impose an undue cost on the taxpayers. It is a compromise, and a worthy one.

The push to strengthen Colorado’s shield law comes from state Sen. Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs, in response to the case of Fox News reporter Jana Winter. Winter, who is based in New York, was subpoenaed by the attorneys for James Holmes, the admitted shooter in the Aurora movie theater killings. The reporter faced possible jail time in Colorado for refusing to reveal the name of the person in law enforcement who told her of the existence of a notebook Holmes had mailed to his psychiatrist before the crime.

Winter was spared that when a New York court ruled that state’s strong shield law protected her. And Herpin got the point.

“If you can’t protect your sources,” he has said, “you might not get access to information that protects the people’s right to know.”

Herpin’s bill is modeled after the New York statute and would replace Colorado current standards, which are vague and subjective, with a four-pronged test. Compelling a newsperson to reveal a source would require showing that the reporter was not given the information in confidence, that it is “highly material and relevant” to the case, that it is critical to a material issue involved and that it cannot be otherwise obtained.

Those standards would strengthen and clarify the law and, with that, bolster the public’s right to know.

Lawrence, Salazar and Herpin deserve credit for their efforts, and their bills deserve broad support.