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Pa. records law

October 13, 2000

Pa. records law



Want to see a copy of your local school board's minutes or find out who the police arrested overnight? Whether you get access to those items in Pennsylvania now depends on whether the custodian of those records wants to give them to you. Current law doesn't require anything like speedy access to such documents, which is why Common Cause and the state's media representatives want to change it.

The law in effect now dates form 1957, and is the basis for the legal assumption that many documents are secret unless specifically designated as open by state law.

The new law would change that, though it would contain numerous exemptions, for items like the records of active police investigations and state employee health records. It would also require government to respond promptly to request for information.

On the other side are the Pennsylvania State Police and 911 dispatchers, who worry that the bill could deter people from reporting crimes, jeopardize investigations and invade citizens' privacy. Some testified that citizens might file nuisance reports to harass agencies, or that criminals would file requests to seek information on certain police procedures now kept under wraps.

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The bill would be an improvement even if it doesn't include access to many police records, first, because it would be a start and second, because outside the police area, most government decisions aren't of the life-or-death variety. Instead, they involve the spending of taxpayers' dollars, and if citizens don't how their money is being spent, why should they support the government at all?

On the police issue, we would argue that arrests should be a matter of public record. The idea that government can detain a citizen secretly is a dangerous threat to our free society.

As state Sen. Robert Jubelirer said, getting the bill passed will require negotiation and compromise, but the end result will be bringing the state's information-access policies into the 20th century.

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