Our Opinion: Press, public, win before SJC

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The skies and the mood don't reflect it, but this is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information sponsored by news organizations across the nation, including The Berkshire Eagle. The week also reminds residents that extracting this information from government and its agencies is not always easy and requires diligence on the part of news organizations and support from a public that requires this information.

During the course of the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, the media has been pressuring local, state and federal agencies to keep them, and by extension, the public, informed of developments. Good information from credible sources not given to rumors is of critical importance in helping people learn about the virus and its impact and maintaining perspective in these difficult times.

A ruling last week by the State Supreme Judicial Court may have been lost in the coronavirus news but it constitutes a victory for the press in assuring access to public information. The SJC ruled that police departments cannot deny public records requests for booking photographs or arrest reports from incidents involving police officers or other public officials. The case goes back to a lawsuit brought by the Boston Globe in 2015 after the paper's request for information about police officers arrested for operating under the influence was denied by the Massachusetts State Police and the Boston Police Department. The case wound through the courts and the Mass. Newspaper Publishers Association filed an amicus in support of the Globe.

"There is substantial public interest in the disclosure of police incident reports regarding alleged offenses by police officers and public officials," wrote Chief Justice Ralph Gants, including in cases that do not result in arraignment.. The court found that privacy protections under CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) do not outweigh the public's right to know. This latter issue had been the subject of controversy, which the SJC's unanimous decision in the case brought by the Globe had the additional benefit of clarifying.

Government's instinct is often toward secrecy, and the police agencies' attempt to protect members from embarrassment certainly didn't outweigh the public's right to know. In this Sunshine Week, Massachusetts residents can be thankful for The Boston Globe and other news organization's efforts to bring this attempt at secrecy to light, resulting in a strong SJC decision upholding the public's right to know.

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