Beacon Journal editorial against bill to close accident report information

Akron Beacon Journal editorial While the efforts often seem well-meaning on the surface, carving out exemptions to the state’s open records law is far too often based on imagined possibilities rather than solid evidence about the need to withhold information from the public. That is clearly the case with a misguided bill under consideration in the Ohio House. It would expand public records disclosure exemptions to include information on minors involved in school-related traffic crashes.

Out of bounds under the bill would be names, addresses, contact information or other personal details of minors involved in a crash involving a school vehicle.

Among other arguments, proponents point to state and federal laws that protect student privacy. In effect, they view a school bus or vehicle as an extension of the classroom. On closer examination, such a rationale falls apart.

Student privacy laws already allow directory information, such as names and addresses, to be released, and records of crashes are kept by law enforcement agencies, not schools.

Dennis Hetzel, the executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, pointed to the lack of evidence of abuse by pedophiles or identity thieves. What must be carefully balanced, he effectively countered, is the public’s right to know details about school bus crashes, a serious public safety issue.

Good journalism, Hetzel reminded, means getting access to information to tell a story with maximum impact. Watering down access to crash reports involving school vehicles would create obstacles to that important mission, not to mention continuing the dangerous trend toward punching more holes in public records law, already riddle with some 30 major exemptions.

With more than 1,500 school bus accidents in Ohio in 2014 and 2015, the public deserves to know more, not less, about what is happening to children put in harm’s way going to and from school. Such coverage could push school officials to address more closely safety concerns, while hiding them would protect them from potential liability. Unfortunately, organizations representing school administrative and business officials support the House bill.

One proponent, state Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, went over the top in imaging the possibility of “some fine, budding journalist sticking a microphone in front of a 5-year-old.”

That’s a powerful image. What must be weighed carefully in the balance are the real statistics about school bus crashes and the need for reporting that could lead to safety improvements.

In the past, lawmakers have bowed too easily to pleas for secrecy based on illusions, protecting, for example, the names of those with a concealed carry permit out of fears their weapons might be stolen or shrouding details on how the death penalty is conducted to somehow protect those carrying it out.

Yet without transparency, it is certain that citizens will have increased difficulty knowing what is done in their names and holding public officials accountable.