Virginia should be better — a lot better — when it comes to protecting citizen access to government records and hearings.
As the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) plainly states, “The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government.”
Government records should, by and large, be accessible to the public. Government hearings should be open to the public. Transparency breeds accountability which, in turn, makes for better, more responsive government.
A few recent developments offer hope that the commonwealth is headed in the right direction.
Begin in the courts, where the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot won a couple of important rulings that could help make Virginia’s criminal justice system more accessible to the public.
In April, Circuit Judge Margaret Poles Spencer closed a bond hearing for then-Newport News police Sgt. Albin Trevor Pearson, who is accused of killing Henry Kistler “Hank” Berry III in his home in late 2019.
This is a serious crime, one involving a law enforcement officer, but the judge agreed to a request by prosecutors to close the hearing, effectively locking the public out of the courtroom. That would seem to violate the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial — to deter secret tribunals — and the First Amendment’s protection of press freedom.
This month, a three-justice panel of the Virginia Supreme Court voted that the case receive a full hearing before the seven-member court, to include briefs from all parties and oral arguments in Richmond. Though the hearing happened months ago, a favorable ruling by the full court could prevent other judges from following in Spencer’s footsteps.
Two other recent rulings involving the newspapers showed similar promise of prying open the courtroom doors to the public.
In October, Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Shawn W. Overbey ordered the Daily Press not to print the names of juveniles in the Sept. 20 Heritage High School shooting. The newspaper’s lawyers argued that was an unconstitutional form of “prior restraint” that violates the First Amendment.
Circuit Judge Christopher Papile vacated that order on Nov. 12 and reversed an order that barred the Daily Press from the status hearing of the defendant. Papile also stopped an effort to block the media from an evidence suppression hearing in another case, that of Vernon E. Green II, the Newport News man charged with the murder of Officer Katie Thyne as he attempted to flee from police during a traffic stop.
These decisions protect the right of the press to report on important legal matters with compelling public interest. They stand up for the First Amendment and should be applauded.
Finally, there was recent movement to strengthen Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, is a former journalist so she knows, better than most lawmakers, how the high costs charged to fulfill public records requests can make government less transparent and accountable.
Large media companies might be able to foot a hefty bill for documents, but average citizens, trying to learn more about their government, often cannot. High costs serve to discourage inquiries and insulate government officials from scrutiny, often at the expense of the public’s right to know.
That’s why Roem this year proposed amending Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to include a cap on the allowable charges for records requests. It sets reasonable limits on fees, and it includes language to discourage citizens from flooding a government body with frivolous requests, a nod to concerns raised by public officials.
Last week, her bill won the support of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council. It deserves the full support of the General Assembly come January.
The march toward openness may be slow going, but Virginia should be pleased to see that progress is being made toward more transparent government in the commonwealth.
— The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot & (Newport News) Daily Press Editorial Board