A bill has made it through a committee in the Oklahoma House of Representatives that would allow any public body to refuse to show documents normally made public by the Open Records Act if they deemed that showing those documents “would clearly cause excessive disruption of (its) essential function.”
The Open Records Act requires that government documents “be made available for public inspection,” except where Oklahoma law expressly states otherwise. The government can charge a fee to search for the information, but not if “the release of said documents is in the public interest, including, but not limited to, release to the news media.”
In its current form, House Bill 1361, the new amendment to the Open Records Act, is the brainchild of Oklahoma City Republican Mike Christian. Christian told the Tulsa World that he was concerned that the Open Records Act, in its current form, would require police officers to immediately release any evidence they had to the public, without being able to take steps to protect evidence or witnesses.
I am not aware of any instances where the Open Records Act has been interpreted this way, but I’ll grant that it’s fair to clarify that police officers should have some reasonable quantity of time to collect evidence before potentially biasing information is shared with the public. HB 1361 is far more expansive than this, however.
First and foremost, HB 1361 allows for any public official to decide not to disclose information because doing so would be too disruptive to their work. This could be used as an excuse to not share virtually any document, and it effectively neuters the Open Records Act.
Second, HB 1361 allows public officials far greater latitude in deciding how much to charge for open records requests. Gone is the prohibition against charging for inquiries serving the public interest. High prices would deter the public from asking about public records in the first place.
Third, HB 1361 has a long series of specific exemptions regarding videos taken by the police. Some of these are reasonable, but others, like exemptions for “any information that could … constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” “any information that may interfere with the prosecution of a crime” and “gang involvement,” are overly general and will certainly be abused.
While investigating the Title IX suit against the University of Tulsa, the Collegian filed an open records request with the Tulsa Police Department asking for records on the criminal charges against Pat Swilling, Jr. Over the course of this investigation, we were repeatedly denied the records without reason. We ran in circles from public office to public office in search of answers. We never obtained the documents we wanted.
My faith in public officials to share documents they are not expressly required by law to share is low. If the revised Open Records Act gives officials an excuse not to share wide swathes of government documents, then I suspect that the public will no longer be able to learn about many of the actions of their government body.
Oklahomans deserve better. It is fundamental to the American notion of democracy that citizens be able to hold their officials accountable. That means not taking state officials at their word. Unfortunately, if the state shields its operations from its citizens, thinking critically about its operations might get much harder.