This started out as a great year for Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, but now it’s in trouble.

In February, investigative reporters at Hearst Media produced a powerful series detailing Bridgeport’s shocking record of non-compliance with FOIA requests. Bridgeport’s delinquency led to a chronic backlog of 2,000 pending cases, mostly due to its practice of funneling the vast majority of cases through a woefully understaffed city attorney’s office.

In 2015, after Bridgeport mayor Joseph Ganim served a seven-year prison sentence for municipal corruption, he was re-elected. Before his criminal conviction, Ganim and Bridgeport had a history of flouting the FOI Act.

When asked for cell phone records from Ganim’s city-issued phone, the city claimed he didn’t have one. Ever so slowly, the public records were produced and helped lead to Ganim’s conviction.

After prison, Ganim earnestly vowed to create an office of government accountability for Bridgeport. It never happened. Instead, Connecticut’s largest city has distinguished itself as Connecticut’s standout FOIA scofflaw, frustrating the state Freedom of Information Commission and earning it a slap-on-the-wrist $750 fine — almost the maximum punishment.

The FOIC rarely imposes fines and is limited to a $1,000 upper limit set in 1984. The good news is that may be about to change.

The Senate co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, expressed concern about the relative powerlessness of the FOIC to punish violators. In the past decade, only six state agencies have been fined anything. Blumenthal said FOI violation and fines should not be seen “as just the cost of doing business.”

Historically, Connecticut has been a pioneer in open government policy. Unlike other states, our Freedom of Information Commission has an in-house staff of experienced attorneys who can assist citizens who want to have public records and open meetings when they are required by law. Other states require citizens to personally fund their legal battles for access to public information.

The bad news this year is a surge of proposed legislation to create new FOI exemptions.

In a broadly worded bill, state auditors are seeking to have all whistleblower reports exempted from public access, with no effort to evaluate whether a release in redacted form might better serve the public interest.

From state university professors, a new exemption is proposed to shield academic research results, despite the fact that the scrum of peer review and comment has, throughout history, proven the best path to trustworthy knowledge.

Some Connecticut professors, specializing in controversial topics, are beset by Internet trolls and opponents who would passionately deny evident scientific fact. Self-protectively, scholars are seeking a blanket exemption on any information gathered in legal clinics and from uncompleted scholarly work. They have complex and compelling stories to report. One told of animal rights activists threatening her for defending accused animal abusers, in a legal clinic. Another told of an academic troll in China — akin to a Holocaust denier — harassing her for researching Japan’s enslavement of Korean “comfort women” in WWII.

These professors deserve protection and support. Threatening that rises to the level of a crime should be criminally punished. But before lawmakers seize the blunt instruments of secrecy and silence as the instant remedy, they should consider whether less restrictive tools might be more effective.

If, for example, an unscrupulous historian plagiarizes the research of a colleague, the victim can and should counter with scholarly documentation. In such a case, the plagiarist’s professional reputation and career are in serious jeopardy.

Scholarship created in Connecticut, by state employees at taxpayer expense, is a public and social benefit that enriches us all. The proposed exemption is sweepingly broad and may do little to curb academic vendettas or political protests. The lawmakers should not rush in.

Additionally, a new batch of state agency employees are seeking exemptions for residential addresses. Legislators have appeared to rubber-stamp these requests in past years without much reflection, adding dozens of exemptions to the FOI Act.

In the era of search engines and social media, where we live is commonplace knowledge, routinely supplied whenever someone must show they are a real person existing on earth.

Many people seeking invisibility under FOI are already in plain view, by their own consent, on the Internet, making these bills little more than a placebo passed off as a panacea.


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