Roundup: News groups seek access to computerized records

Tuesday, August 15, 2000

Thirteen news organizations have asked the New Hampshire Supreme Court
to ensure public access to public information in the computer age. The
organizations made their arguments yesterday in a friend-of-the-court brief in
a case involving access to Medicaid information in the state Department of
Health and Human Services’ computer system. Cassandra Hawkins, represented by
the New Hampshire Legal Assistance office in Portsmouth, thought Medicaid
should have covered her daughter’s dental expenses, and wanted to know how
other similarly aged Medicaid patients had been treated. The department denied
her request for the information, saying it was not a distinct “record” and
could not be produced without costly reprogramming. Hawkins appealed to
Rockingham County Superior Court, which dismissed the case. She then appealed
to the state Supreme Court. Keene
Publisher Thomas M. Ewing said the case raises a
question the court has not resolved: “To what extent can the state allow
information that is not confidential, and would otherwise be fully available to
the public under the Right-to-Know Law, to become inaccessible simply because
of the design of its computer systems?” Mary Schwarzer, assistant attorney
general representing the department, said that fulfilling Hawkins’ request
would have cost $10,000, and that under the Right-To-Know law, the department
didn’t have to spend money on creating a document that didn’t exist.
The Keene Sentinel was joined in the
brief by the Associated Press, The
Boston Globe, the
Eagle Times of Claremont, the
Concord Monitor,
Foster’s Daily Democrat of Dover,
the Citizen of Laconia,
The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass., the
Valley News of Lebanon,
The Telegraph of Nashua, the New
Hampshire Press Association, the Portsmouth
Herald, and the
Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The court will
schedule a hearing, probably in the fall. Associated Press

Pennsylvania: Lawyers for newspaper move to withhold reporter’s

Lawyers for The Philadelphia
want to bar a New Jersey rabbi from obtaining the notes
of a reporter who covered the investigation into the 1994 killing of the
rabbi’s wife. Inquirer lawyer Warren
W. Faulk, in court documents filed Aug. 11, said any information gathered by
reporter Nancy Phillips was protected by New Jersey’s shield law, which was
enacted to prevent reporters from being forced to testify or turn over their
notes. Attorneys for Rabbi Fred J. Neulander
subpoenaed Phillips’ notes last
May. Faulk also wants to block lawyers for Neulander from calling Phillips to
appear at a Sept. 1 hearing before a state judge. Neulander’s lawyers contend
that Phillips, who was present when private investigator Leonard Jenoff told
Camden County Prosecutor Lee A. Solomon that the rabbi hired him to kill his
wife, “crossed the line from reporter to witness” and became an agent for the
prosecutor. Associated Press

Kentucky: School districts respond to Supreme Court prayer

Some Kentucky school and religious officials are chaffing under a U.S.
Supreme Court ruling outlawing student prayers before football games. The
traditional public prayer before Ballard County High School football games will
probably continue despite the court ruling, district spokesman Chandler Case
said. And in McCracken County, school superintendent Tim Heller said his
district would follow the ruling but would not stop any prayer led by a
student. In June, the Supreme Court
ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District
v. Doe
prayers recited over public-address systems at high school football games
give the appearance of school endorsement, thus violating the constitutionally
required separation of church and state. Associated Press

Rhode Island: Police apologize for seizing photographer’s

Providence police apologized to the
Providence Journal
after photographer Rachel Ritchie said
officers grabbed her, forced her to the ground, and then seized her camera and
her pictures of a suspected gunman fleeing a Puerto Rican street festival on
Aug. 6. Joel Rawson, executive editor of the Journal, said he met with Police Chief Urbano
Prignano, who promised to issue a directive to officers barring them from
interfering with photographers and reporters on assignment or confiscating
their notes or equipment to further a criminal investigation. Capt. Jack Ryan,
a police spokesman, declined to comment, except to confirm Rawson’s account of
the meeting and to explain that every officer will receive the directive.
Ritchie, who did not attend the Aug. 9 meeting, said she was still thinking
about her struggle with police and has made no conclusions about what action
should have been taken. Associated Press

Nebraska: State high court upholds convictions of two abortion

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Aug. 11 that the convictions of two
protesters arrested outside the home of a Lincoln abortion doctor were valid.
Sharon McKee and Melissa Abbink
were arrested while picketing near the home of Dr. Winston Crabb on Feb. 6,
1998. Each woman was sentenced to 60 days in jail. They were prosecuted under a
1997 city ordinance that prohibits picketing on “the street which abuts on
property” or in front of the homes of next-door neighbors to the targeted home,
up to 50 feet away. The attorney for the women argued that there was
insufficient evidence to support their convictions because prosecutors did not
prove exactly where they were standing during the protest. The high court
disagreed, saying the evidence was sufficient to show that the women were
protesting on the street in front of Crabb’s home, in violation of the
ordinance. Associated Press

Florida: Fired city worker awarded $763,526 for First Amendment

A jury ruled that the Jacksonville City Council violated a former city
employee’s First Amendment rights when it fired him for sending a letter to
state regulators requesting an investigation of the city’s lax building
practices. Donald Hodges, who was executive director of the Construction Trades
Qualifying Board, was fired in 1998 after board chairman Bob Mathews read
Hodges’ letter to the board. Hodges sued, and last year a judge and jury ruled
in his favor. The jury awarded Hodges $763,526, in addition to a $23,000 annual
pension for life. The case is the largest payout for a labor dispute during
Mayor John Delaney’s six-year tenure. The
(Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union

California: City ordered to pay newspaper’s attorneys’ fees in
records dispute

The city of Richmond was ordered to pay $231,885 in attorneys’ fees to
the San Francisco Bay Guardian,
ending a seven-year court battle over the release of police discipline records.
The case began in 1993 when, after a series of cases involving racial abuse and
excessive force by police, the San Francisco-based weekly asked the Richmond
Police Department for data on citizen complaints. The city argued that the
records were not covered under the California Public Records Act, and the
newspaper sued. The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco finally
ordered the city to turn over some documents in a decision that established the
public’s right to data on police discipline. State law says the winning side in
a lawsuit under the Public Records Act is eligible to have its attorneys’ fees
reimbursed. Although in 1996 a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge ruled
the Guardian had not technically
prevailed because not all requested documents were released, an appellate court
in 1997 unanimously rejected this ruling and awarded the
Bay Guardian attorneys’ fees. On
Aug. 1, the city agreed to pay $231,885, almost three times more than the
Bay Guardian’s legal costs for the
original records case. Associated Press

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