Toledo Blade editorial: Hiding public records

Public officials routinely skirt freedom of information laws by claiming that requests for public records are “overly broad.” The Ohio Department of Health used that excuse to try to deflect a request from NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio to gain access to records of department communications with Ohio Right to Life, the state’s most powerful anti-abortion lobby.

The request wasn’t broad at all: It sought records of calls from two phone numbers associated with Right to Life and emails exchanged with the group. NARAL sued the department this year; department officials have agreed — grudgingly — to turn over the records.

The Health Department, and Gov. John Kasich’s administration in general, promote the agenda of anti-abortion groups such as Right to Life. Records of the department’s communications reveal that Right to Life regularly corresponds with department officials about state regulation of clinics that perform abortions.

The Health Department has shut down nearly half of Ohio’s abortion clinics since 2013, when the governor signed a medically unnecessary law that requires abortion providers to secure transfer agreements with local hospitals. Right to Life played an active role in promoting the law’s passage. The Health Department is working to shut down Capital Care Network, Toledo’s only remaining abortion clinic.

Health professionals tend to oppose medically unsupported restrictions on reproductive rights. Last year, Mr. Kasich appointed a health director who does not hold a medical degree or have any expertise in public health — ostensibly a requirement for the job under Ohio law.

But medical truth doesn’t seem to have much salience for state policy makers. The Health Department grants funding to so-called pregnancy crisis centers — anti-abortion groups that dole out medically inaccurate information to pregnant women, such as unfounded claims that link abortion to breast cancer.

Dispensing false information in the guise of medical expertise should be illegal. In Ohio, though, the state sponsors such activities.

In response to NARAL’s records requests, Health Department officials and Ohio Right to Life insist that the group does not get special treatment from the department. Yet the department’s compliance with an anti-choice agenda, and its refusal to cooperate with reasonable public records requests, don’t inspire confidence in its independence.

Of all the problems this episode reveals about the state of Ohio politics, public records law should be the easiest to fix. Abortion controversies aren’t going away, but lawmakers at least must be willing to address loopholes in state law that allow officials to dodge any request they find inconvenient by deeming it too broad.

If NARAL did not have the resources to sue the Health Department — as many citizens don’t — the records it sought would never have seen the light of day. That’s clearly out of step with the intent of Ohio public records law, and ought to be swiftly rectified.