Brief History of
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information (CCFOI) was formed in 1955 as an arm of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association (CDNA) when Connecticut had mostly locally-owned newspapers, whose publishers and senior editors were both directly and personally involved in assuring that state and local government was open and accountable. As the news media evolved, with less local ownership and control of both print and broadcast outlets, CDNA, and its broadcast counterpart, the Connecticut Broadcasters Association, effectively limited their efforts to the financial laws affecting their businesses. CCFOI, led by senior editors and news directors, with less financial support from their employers, was left on its own (with some assistance from the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) to carry the load of advocating for the public’s right to know in the halls of the legislature. It continues that effort today.
CCFOI became a nonprofit corporation Jan. 18, 2012, “organized exclusively to promote social welfare by promoting, preserving and protecting the public access to government in Connecticut and upholding the constitutional principles of freedom of the press.”
Ten directors or incorporators signed the incorporation papers: Richard F. Ahles, retired Hartford Channel 3 TV news director; G. Claude Albert, retired Hartford Courant managing editor; Mary Connolly, retired Danbury News-Times editorial page editor; Steven Kalb, University of Connecticut journalism professor; George Lombardi, WSHU radio general manager, Sacred Heart University; Morgan McGinley, retired New London Day editorial page editor; Mitchell W. Pearlman, retired general counsel and executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission; Chris Powell, Manchester Journal Inquirer managing editor; Thomas B. Scheffey, Connecticut Law Tribune writer; James H. Smith, retired executive editor of the Bristol Press and New Britain Herald.
CCFOI also has undertaken a significant role in educating the public about its rights, and in training public officials in their responsibilities, under Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That role has been reduced somewhat thanks to the formation of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, a tax exempt nonprofit corporation, in 1991, which benefits from membership dues beyond the news media, local fundraisers and philanthropy, and grants from the National Freedom of Information Coalition. But CCFOI is still called on for training and public education because of its expertise in the First Amendment, including shield laws, open government and media law.
CCFOI was instrumental in the passage of the Connecticut FOIA in 1975. Many believe that without CCFOI’s legislative work over the preceding 20 years, FOIA would not have been enacted. Since 1975, CCFOI and its members have worked tirelessly to see that FOIA remains a strong and vibrant law and that other laws that enhance the public’s right to know are passed while laws that limit that right are defeated.
The following are some of CCFOI’s key efforts and achievements during the last decade or so.
- Throughout the 1990s to the present, CCFOI led the successful fight to update the state FOIA so that electronic government information, including emails, is subject to public disclosure. CCFOI staved off attempts to exempt government information systems from FOIA and to require greater fees for government databases and other records on electronic media. CCFOI also worked to make sure that government cell phone and “Blackberry” records are available to the public under the FOIA.
- CCFOI also led the generally successful fight to subject quasi-public agencies, and private entities that perform government functions, to FOIA’s open records and open meetings provisions. When the state was contemplating the privatization of its entire information technology operation, CCFOI helped persuade the Governor that the contract must provide that all government information in the hands of the contractor must be made available to the public pursuant to the FOIA.
- After 9/11, CCFOI took a pro-active role in limiting the enactment in Connecticut of “knee jerk” legislation that would overly restrict public access to government records based on unreasonable security concerns. Consequently, Connecticut’s laws are far superior to those in many jurisdictions with respect to security issues. Connecticut even has a double-layered, independent review system for security-based denials of government records before going to court.
- After many years of trying, CCFOI was finally successful in 2002 in opening to public scrutiny the autopsy reports of those who died while in state custody. It continues to work to enlarge public disclosure of autopsy reports by state medical examiners of those who die due to homicide (including as a result of police activity), communicable diseases, work-related or environmental issues, or under other suspicious circumstances.
- Also in 2002, CCFOI was instrumental in securing a legislative amendment requiring disclosure of records of teacher misconduct, and establishing that such records are distinct from records of teacher performance and evaluation that are statutorily exempt from public disclosure.
- While a former Connecticut Governor was being investigated for corruption (which ultimately led to his resignation and imprisonment), he attempted to emasculate the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission – the only administrative FOIA enforcement agency in the United States – by drastically cutting its budget and therefore virtually eliminating its ability to vindicate in a timely fashion complaints against the Governor for denying access to information related to his alleged corrupt practices and those of his administration. CCFOI successfully championed the legislative effort to restore the budget cuts and to enact legislation prohibiting a Governor, or his administration, from cutting the commission’s funding or funding requests in the future.
- In 2006, after a number of false starts, CCFOI helped craft and enact a state shield law that had broad (but not universal) support from Connecticut print and broadcast journalists and media outlets.
CCFOI has worked over many decades to contest the state judiciary’s claim to virtual exemption from the state constitution’s mandate that the courts shall be open, as well as from the inclusion in FOIA’s coverage of the judicial branch’s administrative records and meetings. For example, see http://blog.ctbriefsonline.com/?p=613 for briefs in Connecticut Supreme Court case of Valvo v. Freedom of Information Commission. As the result of the publicity surrounding several major judicial scandals, and CCFOI’s unrelenting pressure, the judiciary is now moving rapidly toward more open and accountable practices, including the posting of court dockets on its website, permitting cameras in courtrooms, opening its rule-making processes and the meetings of judges where rules, procedures and administrative matters are discussed and voted on. CCFOI has pushed hard for these and other reforms, and its leaders have served, and are serving, on committees established to foster greater judicial openness. CCFOI is also continuing to fight for legislation governing judicial openness under the state FOIA and ultimately for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that the courts will not retrench from these reforms under the guise of “separation of powers.
Finally, CCFOI annually presents awards to journalists, public officials and private citizens, recognizing their efforts on behalf of open and accountable government and the First Amendment, thereby publicizing the importance of these quintessential principles of American democracy.