Thursday, March 11, 2010

Not-So-Public Records

On Wednesday, a Georgia judge ordered the state Bureau of Investigation to prevent public dissemination of gruesome crime scene photographs from a high-profile murder case. A journalist from Hustler magazine had sought the release of police photographs of 24-year-old victim Meredith Emerson, whose body was found nude and decapitated along a Georgia hiking trail in 2008 who disappeared from a Georgia hiking trail in 2008 and was later found nude and decapitated [corrected after comments below]. Emerson’s family requested and received a temporary restraining order which would block the photographs from public release. (Similar restrictions were already in place for autopsy photographs under the state’s open records law, but the status of crime scene photographs in Georgia is murkier.) The court order came as members of the Georgia state legislature simultaneously worked to pass the Meredith Emerson Memorial Privacy Act, which would require permission of the victim’s next of kin for the release of crime scene materials depicting “a deceased person in a nude, bruised, bloodied, or broken state with open wounds or in a state of dismemberment or decapitation."

The case illustrates the sensitive issues which arise within an “open government.” In an affidavit to the court, Emerson’s mother stated that the release “would cause deep and serious emotional pain, embarrassment, humiliation and sadness for me and the entire family […] Meredith would not want the pictures to be disclosed to anyone.” This difficult situation has been in the media before, most notably with the leak of gruesome police photographs from a car accident which killed California teen Nikki Catsouras, who became popularly known online as “Porsche Girl” after the images went viral on the Web.

The Emerson debate coincides with Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open access to government information, which will be held this year from 3/14-3/20. It’s a sobering reminder of the balancing act between government transparency and individual privacy. Open government laws (also commonly known as open records or public records laws) vary widely by state, from what records are available for public review to the manner in which they can be disseminated. For a review of open records laws by state, take a look at Sunshine Review, which includes an overview of each state’s law as well as information about the process of making public records requests. For guides in the library to using open records laws, try a subject keyword search of the libraries' online catalog for government information--united states. But always remember the real people behind those records when you are seeking exceptionally sensitive information, and be aware of the variations among states regarding what records are available.

Where do you stand on the Emerson case? Discuss your thoughts in the comments.