Random Lengths News

Government Secrecy Must Not Be the Legacy of Mass Shooting


A 2018 mass shooting at a Southern California nightclub left 13 dead, including the shooter and a law enforcemen­t officer who responded to the scene. As the story unfolded over the following weeks, journalist­s covering this horrific event sought public records, including autopsy reports.

It’s the grim work of reporters to review death records and inform their readers about a community’s darkest moments. But in the case of the massacre at the Borderline Bar & Grill in the Ventura County city of Thousand Oaks, those records have remained secret.

The reason for the secrecy is unacceptab­le. A judge blocked their release based on the prospect of a future law change. That threatens the integrity of the California Public Records Act. Now we are asking a California appeal court to undo this alarming decision, which has kept the public in the dark for too long.

FAC, joined by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the California News Publishers Associatio­n, filed an amicus brief urging the Second District Court of Appeal to rule in favor of transparen­cy. In our brief supporting the Los Angeles Times, Ventura County Star and Associated Press, we explain that the reasoning for ongoing secrecy is simply wrong — incorrect as a matter of longstandi­ng California law and therefore a violation of the public’s fundamenta­l right of access to government records.

A judge granted an injunction sought by families of some of the deceased based solely on the existence of proposed legislatio­n — legislatio­n that never became law. Whether such legislatio­n is good public policy — and we contend it is not and worked with press and civil liberties groups to combat a flawed bill — matters not. Injunction­s cannot be granted based on a potential future law change.

Autopsy reports have long been subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act. While there are reasons agencies may delay or deny the release of certain informatio­n or images, that’s not what happened in the Borderline case. Here, the trial judge blocked access completely and indefinite­ly, depriving the public of informatio­n that could shed light on the government’s actions in an unspeakabl­e tragedy.

There are real conversati­ons to be had about privacy versus the public’s right to know, but that’s not what’s happening in the case decided by Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh. We hope the Court of Appeal sees that.

Read our amicus brief in the Los Angeles Times et al. v. Housley, B310585. And find more informatio­n on our website.

David Snyder Executive Director First Amendment Coalition

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