Ky. lawmakers revive bill to shield records about public officers

First Amendment advocates point out that such information is already blocked by privacy laws — and the new legislation could create a chilling effect for those making and responding to open records requests because of the penalties.

A wide range of public officials, government employees and their family members would be able to block public agencies from releasing “personally identifiable information” about them under a bill filed in the Kentucky legislature.

Senate Bill 63 is a revival of attempts to shield people like judges, prosecutors, police officers, firefighters and social workers from having their information disclosed in open records requests in recent years.

Danny Carroll questions public officials
Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, questions officials from the Department of Medicaid Services concerning Senate Bill 5, a bill relating to pharmacy benefits in the Medicaid program, in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Feb. 4, 2021, in Frankfort. (LRC Public Information Office photo)

The proposal would allow people who request to have their information redacted to sue records custodians or journalists who violate it.

First Amendment advocates point out that personally identifying information shielded under the bill like social security numbers, financial information and medical histories are already blocked by privacy laws. And they worry that the measure will create a chilling effect for those making and responding to open records requests because of the penalties.

Amye Bensenhaver, a former assistant attorney general and co-director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, said the proposal would create additional burdens for records custodians.

“Everybody’s going to be operating with this superimposed layer of potential liability for disclosing these records. If you disclose these records you are subject to civil suit,” Bensenhaver said.

The measure is sponsored by Paducah Republican Sen. Danny Carroll, who has carried similar efforts in recent years. Carroll didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kentucky Press Association attorneys Jon Fleischaker and Michael Abate released a statement saying that the measure is unconstitutional and will chill citizens’ abilities to speak and write about public servants.

“The bill’s poor drafting and internal inconsistencies create far more problems than they solve, leaving public agencies, journalists, businesses, and citizens unsure of what they can say or do concerning a wide range of public officials or any person related to them by blood, marriage, or law,” the attorneys wrote in a statement.

A note of transparency, Fleischaker and Abate have represented KyCIR and WFPL in public records-related issues and conducted legal reviews of our stories.

The measure would create a broad category of who counts as a “family member,” including blood relatives, in-laws and people who live at the same residence.

Last year a similar proposal passed out of the legislature, but Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed it, saying it was “overly broad” and would infringe “on the public’s right to information about their government.” Lawmakers weren’t able to override Beshear’s veto because they ran out of time.

(Editor’s note: Hoptown Chronicle editor Jennifer P. Brown is a co-founder and board members of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.)

Ky. lawmakers revive bill to shield records about public officers

Kentucky Public Radio

This story was first published by our partners at Kentucky Public Radio.