For Immediate Release
March 13, 2019
The Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists urges the Indiana General Assembly to stand on the side of government transparency in schools, children’s services and sheriff’s sales.
Three bills now before the Indiana General Assembly would curtail the public’s right to know on important issues being handled by their elected officials. We urge the legislature to reject these measures.
Secrecy in school communications
House Bill 1629 would deprive Hoosiers of access to information about how their children are being educated and their tax dollars are being spent. A provision in the bill would exempt emails between school staff members from basic access to public records. This would be a major step back. The public can currently request internal emails from schools under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. Journalists, concerned parents, and the general public would have a harder time learning about how the public institutions are really being run. The legislation flies in the face of the public’s right to know about important information under discussion by school officials. (HB 1629 passed the House on February 21 and is now under consideration by the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development.)
Secrecy in children’s services
Senate Bill 551 would prohibit the release of records held by the Indiana Department of Child Services if they relate to an ongoing police investigation or criminal prosecution. Such a prohibition would have a chilling effect on transparency. The current law — which requires the agency to release records relating to a child who died as a result of abuse or neglect — allows the public to hold DCS and other officials and agencies to account for failures in its mission to protect children. Shielding such records from disclosure does not serve the public interest. If a case stalls, the records could be kept in secret in perpetuity. (SB 551 passed the Senate on February 12 and is now under consideration by the House Courts and Criminal Courts Committee.
Secrecy in sheriff’s sales
House Bill 1212 would make it harder for the public to find information about sheriff’s sales, and by extension, what is happening in their own neighborhoods. The bill would eliminate a long-time requirement that sheriff's sale notices be posted in community newspapers, placing them instead on the websites of county governments or sheriff’s departments. Those websites have low page views as compared to trusted local newspapers that have a much wider audience and post content that is much more likely to turn up in a Google search. In addition, any possible cost savings by not paying for newspaper advertisements would be offset by the cost of county government employees compiling, posting, archiving and maintaining the sheriff’s sale notices. and would be completely wiped out by narrowing the pool of bidders to just a few seasoned house-flippers who would be actively monitoring little-visited county-run websites. Restricting such information to the few would harm the many and the very government agencies that are supposed to benefit. Whether with sports, arts, crime or general community coverage, newspapers serve a general interest readership beyond the small niche that would regularly check sheriff's sale postings online. (HB 1212 passed the House on January 29 and is now under consideration by the Senate Committee on Local Government. )
Overall, government transparency offers sunlight, and restrictions like those in these three bills would shroud routine, mundane government business with gratuitous darkness, leaving the public blind and groping around in the pitch black. We urge the Indiana General Assembly to reject these measures.
The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation's most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.
John Russell, president
Indianapolis Professional Chapter
Society of Professional Journalists