Bill to reverse FOIA concept

^ Posted Feb. 6

By Alex Bridges

A bill speeding through the state legislature upends a major tenet of information access, say the foes of the measure.

House Bill 1524 seeks to reverse the "open unless closed" presumption of the Freedom of Information Act to make the law "closed unless open," according to Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Rhyne and Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, spoke out against the bill when the senate FOIA subcommittee took up the legislation Wednesday. The panel reported the bill to the Committee on General Laws that meets on Monday.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council takes no positions on bills except legislation the agency has endorsed, according to staff attorney Alan Gernhardt. The council neither received the bill for further study nor did its members take any votes on the legislation. The council's Executive Director Maria Everett spoke at the panel meeting at the request of senators to help explain the bill, Gernhardt said.

But Gernhardt confirmed that the legislation, if passed, will do what Stanley and Rhyne have said it would do - reverse the rule on exempting children's information as kept by parks and recreation departments from public access.

"The opposition is not about protecting children's information; everybody's OK with that," Gernhardt said. "The opposition is because FOIA is an open-records law and the way it's structured is that everything's open.

Current law states that information related to children participating in state or local parks and recreation department programs is public record unless a parent opts out of disclosure, according to Rhyne. Such departments began providing "opt out" boxes on registration forms for parents to check off for their children since the state enacted the law in 2004.

"This one flips [the presumption] on its head so that the default rule is these records about children in parks and rec are closed unless somebody flips the switch to make them open," Gernhardt explained.

Stanley stated in an email Wednesday that, under FOIA, records and meetings remain open unless specifically stated as an exemption. Even then the custodian of record may choose to release the information. Likewise a public body can choose not to close a meeting. Such rules pertain to information in school directories, according to Stanley.

"Unfortunately, the senators that heard testimony this morning were voting with their hearts (it was all about the children) instead of trying to understand the code section (2.2-3705.7-22) that already gives proper protection to the participants as long as the opt out box is checked on the registration form," Stanley states.

Rhyne and Stanley also have testified that such a change to the philosophy of FOIA could set a precedent and open the door for similar alterations, Gernhardt said. The attorney indicated he couldn't predict whether such legislation would lead to further changes in the state law.

Del. Ronald A. Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored the bill in the house where it met almost no opposition. The House of Delegates on Jan. 25 passed the bill by a 96-1 vote. Delegates representing the Northern Shenandoah Valley voted in favor of the bill's passage. Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, did not vote.

No incidents have been reported since 2004, according to Rhyne, who, in a coalition newsletter, also refutes claims that this legislation would enhance protection for children. Games and practices are held in public places; rosters and schedules are freely distributed and shared with participants, according to Rhyne. Schools often provide directory information for all children whose parents have not opted our and then share that with school families. In fact, the Family Educational and Rights Privacy Act stipulates that director information is open to the public.

Parent-teacher associations routinely share children's contact information to vendors of school-related products and services. Newspapers publish honor roll lists and congratulatory messages that name children, Rhyne notes. Commercial entities often share children's contact information through magazine subscriptions and video game registration. Privately run sports leagues publish participant information that coaches, teachers or vendors can use, according to Rhyne.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com











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