Forecast 2014: Shots Echo In Freedom Of Information Arena

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Thomas B. Scheffey
Thomas B. Scheffey

At exactly 9:40:03 on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, the last shot was fired in Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It ended the life of Adam Lanza, and marked the first shot in the most recent battle over privacy and openness, and the most recent conflict between victims' rights and the public's right to know.

So far, this battle's main casualty has been Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act.

Because Lanza killed himself, police and prosecutors had no suspect to arrest, question, indict and take to trial. There has been no real target for society's outrage. Instead, the media and FOI laws became a kind of surrogate target. Just how much each will be affected will become more clear in 2014.

Right after the shooting, news reporters were drawn from far and wide, competing to cover for this momentous story. To the people of Newtown, the crush of attention felt oppressive and invasive. Police, understandably, felt especially protective of the bereft.

Newtown authorities didn't release the 911 tapes that the Associated Press requested, and Newtown's town clerk refused to provide death certificates as required by law. When the public and press invoked the FOI act, law enforcement officials had many ways to say no. And they did.

At first, they could claim the ongoing criminal investigation exemption as the basis for withholding records. Newtown police and Danbury Prosecutor Stephen Sedensky III dragged out the process for many months. They opposed release of the 911 tapes on the flimsy grounds that the callers reporting the massacre were making a confidential report of child abuse, or were witnesses who needed protection.

Even as sources of authentic information ran dry, there was a gush of rumor and Internet reporting to fill the vacuum. Within hours of the shooting there were reports that Newtown was a hoax staged by "crisis actors." Other reports deemed it real — but perpetrated by anti-gun activists.

Speculation wasn't limited to those who cherish the Second Amendment. On March 13, filmmaker Michael Moore wrote the following in a blog post: "[N]ow, after the children's massacre in Newtown, the absolute last thing the National Rifle Association wants out there in the public domain is any images of what happened that tragic day.

"But I have a prediction. I believe someone in Newtown, Connecticut – a grieving parent, an upset law enforcement officer, a citizen who has seen enough of this carnage in our country – somebody, someday soon, is going to leak the crime scene photos of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. And when the American people see what bullets from an assault rifle fired at close range do to a little child's body, that's the day the jig will be up for the NRA. It will be the day the debate on gun control will come to an end... And every sane American will demand action."

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