Sunday, October 12, 2003

Let the people decide

Public access: Open records

Public access to public information is so vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, you'd think it would be Job One of any official entrusted with such information. Unfortunately, that's often not the case for various political, special-interest or bureaucratic reasons. So a couple of developments this past week on the public-access front are worth noting.

On Wednesday, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken and members of City Council decided the city should appeal a federal magistrate's gag order delaying release of a racial-profiling report. They made the right call. U.S. Magistrate Michael Merz' order, requested by plaintiffs' attorneys in the profiling suit-ending collaborative, forbids public access to a University of Cincinnati analysis of about 50,000 police traffic stops until mid-November, under the highly dubious theory that releasing data on racial profiling would unfairly influence the Nov. 4 City Council election.

The gag order only raises suspicions about what's in the report and how it may be manipulated.

Besides, whether profiling exists has been one of the key issues facing Cincinnati in recent years, which means the report should be part of the political dialogue during the council campaign. It should not be withheld from the civic discussion.

That is also why, in a separate development, the Enquirer this week asked the Ohio Supreme Court to open court records from the trial of former Cincinnati police Officer Stephen Roach, who was acquitted of negligent homicide in the 2001 shooting of black teenager Timothy Thomas that led to several days of rioting. Attorney John C. Greiner argued that sealing the records to protect Roach's privacy violated the public's right to information on a matter of social importance. He's right. Questions linger about the shooting and the trial. Unsealing the records could be a healing act that helps answer those questions and gives the public confidence that nothing in the process is being hidden.

As we argued in a Wednesday editorial on the racial-profiling gag order, the principle ought to be: When in doubt, disclose. In a democracy the people decide. And the more information the people have, the better their decisions.

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