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Phoenix, Arizona

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Protecting Access to Public Records

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An opinion article in today’s edition of the Arizona Republic caught my attention when it discussed access to public records. Various public records maintained by local, state and federal governments can affect corporate and individual acountability for the safety of products and services offered to consumers. Our local, state and national governments collect lots of information about many things in this country. Governments require corporations to file annual reports, courts keep litigation records, and county recorder offices maintain land transfer documents. Usually this information has been available for public inspection under the Arizona Public Records Act or the federal Freedom of Information Act. In the past, I have discussed the need to redact information contained in public records if they contain personal and confidential information such as social security numbers. However, today’s newspaper article suggests that government may attempt to go far beyond simply protecting confidential information.

The author cautions:

The problem is when government officials use privacy and national security as catch-all shields to sometimes conceal corruption or prevent embarrassment, or to hide information that could actually help the public.

Officials say “Trust us,” but given the history of bungling and lies in all administrations, Democrat and Republican, I hesitate to allow them to tax us, jail us and take away our property without some checks. Ironically, as government officials close documents ostensibly to protect our privacy, they further intrude in our lives through surveillance cameras, data collection and wiretapping.

In the past, public records have helped to show a corporate or individual defendant had prior knowledge about a defect in a product which made it unreasonably dangerous or that an individual engaged in a history of bad conduct with reckless abandon causing harm to different victims. I do not believe that government should ever be able to limit access to public records for these types of reasons. While I understand that privacy and security implications should limit access to various records, I sincerely hope that our governments do not limit access to records solely as a method to limit accountability for bad decisions. What do you think? Should our state and local governments be given carte blanche ability to limit an individual’s access to public records such as a police report, an insurance filing, or a corporate annual report? Why or why not? I’d like to hear about your thoughts.