From Portland Press Herald: (Nov. 14, 2013) The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled unanimously in favor of the Portland Press Herald’s appeal requesting authorities to release transcripts of 911 calls in a Biddeford murder case, opening the door on whether other 911 recordings are public record.
The decision overturns a ruling by a Superior Court judge earlier this year that releasing the transcripts of three 911 calls in the case against James Pak, 75, who is accused of killing two people on Dec. 29 and wounding a third, could interfere with the ongoing legal case against Pak.
Six groups joined the Portland Press Herald in the lawsuit, each filing amicus briefs with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the New England First Amendment Center, the Maine Association of Broadcasters, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, the Maine Press Association and The Associated Press.
Patrick Strawbridge, a lawyer who represented that coalition, called the decision “a substantial victory for access in the state of Maine.”
“The decision puts Maine within the mainstream of states that allow access,” he said by telephone Friday.
Thirty-nine states have no restrictions on the release of 911 calls or the information in them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Five states, including Maine, impose some restrictions. Six states keep 911 recordings confidential.
Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said state access laws regarding 911 tapes and transcripts are “all over the map.” The general rule, though, is that they are public.
“And they should be public,” he said.
Bunting said fights like these are a big reason the National Freedom of Information Coalition exists.
“The amount of advocacy by news media, who were once stewards, has been going down,” he said. “News organizations are less interested and less inclined to take these fights on. So when they do, it’s important.”
Bunting cautioned that the ruling may not necessarily last long. He said the Maine Legislature could proposed amendments to the state’s access laws that effectively reverse the decision. In Connecticut, he said, where news organizations have been fighting for access to 911 calls associated with the school shooting at Sandy Hook, lawmakers are discussing ways to keep those records confidential.
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