High court damages freedom with ruling

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 16, 2005

As far as the Ohio Supreme Court is concerned, vital information does not really have to be &uot;free&uot; to the public.

Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously declared that home addresses of state employees are not public records.

While on the surface this may sound like a good idea to some people, the negative effects are far reaching and are only now becoming a reality.

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Many people will try to extend this to include all public employees and that would be a big mistake.

The big problem with the ruling centers on the fact that it will now be more difficult for the media to act as a watchdog over public officials who decide to break the law or bend the rules to suit them.

Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, warns of a dangerous, chilling effect.

"All of (those in the media) know that the end-result will make computer-assisted reporting and investigative reporting much more difficult," he said. "It will be much more difficult to match databases of employee names with other databases to cross-reference the activities of public employees i.e. ownership of extravagant property or slum property, drunk-driving offenses, investment ventures, hiring of relatives in public jobs, etc."

Of even further concern, the public has the right to know where elected officials and public employees live.

Does a local politician have a &uot;home&uot; among his constituents but really live in another city or state? Does the city code enforcement officer have numerous violations visible at his own residence? Is a "John Doe" in a police report the same "John Doe" who works for the State of Ohio?

All these questions will become more difficult to answer if this ruling stands.

Local officials will try to use this decision to withhold the addresses of local government employees as well.

But the battle is not over. The Legislature will resume looking at the state's open records reform bill this fall and this should be a key part of that reform plan.

Let your elected leaders know you want to keep open records truly "open."

Much like an avalanche, the loss of our freedoms can start with a single stone.