Our View: Unsealing a challenge to the public trust
After wrongly being denied access to a public record by the Watauga County Sheriff's Office, specifically after a court sealed a 911 recording, the Watauga Democrat quickly filed a motion requesting access to the recording. A hearing on this matter is scheduled for May 8.
Within North Carolina's public records law is the emphasis that records and information compiled by government agencies are the property of the people.
This emphasis is vital if government is to truly serve the people.
Sometimes, a government agency will contend that the release of information could jeopardize a criminal investigation. Yet, the law states that such a contention “shall not affect its status as a public record.”
This is not to say that public records which would result in reckless access and hamper a just and right outcome to a crime are strictly available under public records law.
A 911 recording, for example, can be properly sealed by a court, but only within strict confines of the law.
According to that law, a law enforcement agency arguing to refuse to disclose a 911 recording “shall have the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that disclosure of the information in question will jeopardize the right of the state to prosecute a defendant or the right of a defendant to receive a fair trial or will undermine an ongoing or future investigation.”
The court order sealing the 911 recording to which the Watauga Democrat is seeking access specifies none of these things. Instead, that order is based on speculation of what “may” or “could” result, and does not detail any compelling governmental interests to justify the sealing.
The flow of information from government to people is essential if a nation is to declare itself truly a democracy.
We at Watauga Democrat will work actively to ensure that public records are constantly and consistently available to the public.
Let the light shine: It's more than words on paper, and it's more than a week to recognize once per year.
It's the truth behind what we do as a newspaper in the service of our community.