Guest column: “Spotlight” shows truth cannot emerge without open access to public records
By Deborah Fisher
March 14, 2016
There's a great scene about public records in the movie "Spotlight," which is based on the true story of The Boston Globe's investigative reporting of child sex abuse by Catholic priests.
Reporter Michael Rezendes rushes to the court clerk's office to get an exhibit that had been filed as part of a court motion. It contained letters and evidence that showed the Archdiocese of Boston had known about the molestation of children for years, but failed to stop it.
"Those records are sealed," says the clerk.
"No, that's a public motion. Those records are public. I work for the Globe," Rezendes replies.
"Good for you," the clerk says, unmoved.
Rezendes then goes to the judge's office.
"These exhibits you are after, Mr. Rezendes, they are very sensitive records," the judge says.
"With all due respect, your honor, that's not the question. The records are public," the reporter says.
"Maybe so. But tell me, where is the editorial responsibility in publishing records of this nature?" the judge asks.
The reporter replies with a line that captures a strongly held conviction about the role of the First Amendment in our society.
"Where is the editorial responsibility in not publishing them?"
The reporter gets the records and they become the basis for a report that helped crack open one of the more stomach-turning stories of our time — a trusted institution that failed its own values and people, hurt children and hid it.
The story is relevant because it displays the tension that occurs when access to public records is blocked in the name of some sort of "other good." Here, the "other good" was protection of the church. But in this case, that secrecy lay squarely in opposition to the fundamental principle that the public has an interest in the functioning of its justice system.
Few struggles to gain access to public records are dramatic enough for a movie. But statutory and constitutional access to government records and court records is critical in maintaining a free and independent press. It is critical to the ability of citizens to get at the truth and facts of how their government is operating.
A fresh debate is capturing some of the same tension and discomfort with media scrutiny.
Against the backdrop of high-profile officer-involved shootings, many police and sheriff's departments are spending millions of dollars to outfit their officers with body cameras, creating thousands of hours of video footage of interaction between police and citizens.
Many people believe the video — a public record — will increase law enforcement accountability.
In Memphis, however, officials have said footage will be kept confidential if it is related to an ongoing investigation.
Play that out. If an officer uses lethal force, and an investigation is launched, any video that captured events leading up to the event, or the event itself, will be kept from the public for months, maybe years in some situations, as investigations drag on and cases work their way through the system.
Seeing such difficult footage may raise questions at times of citizen privacy and fair trials. But it also pits those issues squarely against the very First Amendment rights that allowed The Boston Globe to finally bring sunlight onto the Catholic Church's cover-up.
A handful of competing bills in the Tennessee legislature seeks to navigate the body camera issue. Some appear to be headed to restrict the press — or for that matter, the public — from seeing relevant records created by police cameras, essentially sealing some or all of them in advance. The Tennessee Supreme Court is weighing arguments in a case that deals with similar constitutional issues, which might be a reason to slow down.
Should Tennesseans care about access to public records?
As it turned out in Boston, sunlight proved itself again as the best disinfectant.