Policy makers juggle right to know policy

INDIANAPOLIS -- Balancing public accountability and individual privacy is a challenge for legislators and journalists at both the state and national level.

A panel of legislative experts, who included media lobbyists, an Indiana state senator and the head of the Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed that much "bad" legislation starts as well-intentioned effort to address legitimate concerns.

"The problem is," explained Glenda Dudley Shelby, a lobbyist for the Indiana Broadcasters Association, "legislators often don't consider the consequences beyond the problem they are trying to fix."

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 was cited as a prime example of legislation with unintended consequences. Usually referred to as HIPAA, its original purpose was to make it easier for consumers to change insurance policies and to protect patient records.

However, the law has thrown a blanket over massive amounts of information that once was considered "public," such as hospital admission records and ambulance run data.

Tonda Rush, a media lawyer and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., said the law has had a chilling effect on "whisteblowing," making it difficult to document or even report problems in the healthcare industry.

Indiana State Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, is considered an ally of public access at the Indiana Legislature, but even she stated an interest in keeping some information private, such as copies of e-mail correspondence between legislators and their constituents.

Gard said she would not want to do anything to discourage open communication with citizens, which she said likely would be the result if her constituents thought their e-mails to her would "end up as a newspaper headline."

Rush said the courts and the American culture is reacting to changes caused by the existence of electronic databases, identity theft and security concerns following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She said the culture is shifting from a "right-to-know" to a "need-to-know" basis, particularly concerning information about individuals.

She said the media needs to understand that shift and work with legislators to find a working balance.

"All of us who tend to be absolutists about access need to get off that high horse if we are to make progress," she said.

Shelby also said media professionals need to overcome their traditional hesitancy to speak directly with lawmakers about information concerns. She and other panelists encouraged media organizations to develop ties with broad coalitions whose members share a common interest in public access.

"Nothing is as good as personal contact to get your point across to a legislator," said Gard.