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EDITORIAL

More sunshine, not less, needed with Massachusetts public records

A Baker budget amendment would hinder public records access.

Years worth of unprocessed out-of-state conviction notifications that were stashed and neglected by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. Transportation.
Years worth of unprocessed out-of-state conviction notifications that were stashed and neglected by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. Transportation.Massachusetts Department of Transportation

What a difference five years and a second term can make.

During the first year of his first term, Governor Charlie Baker proudly announced “administration-wide measures to improve transparency and public access to government records and information.” Today, a year into his second term, Baker is trying to drastically restrict access to Massachusetts birth records, death certificates, and marriage notices, through a sneaky provision attached as an outside amendment to his $44.6 billion budget proposal.

The provision would allow only those who are requesting their own records to view or get copies, with some exceptions carved out for a person’s parent or attorney, or by a judicial order. Baker’s alleged mission is to “protect individual identity.”

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The privacy issue is worthy of debate, said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose office oversees an array of public records. But, as Galvin sees it, “The problem with the governor’s proposal is that it takes too many people out of access. . . . The inconvenience and difficulty of getting access to records does not justify anything this drastic.” As Galvin also notes, in the Internet age, identity thieves don’t need access to paper records; they can simply hack into the information that people voluntarily put online.

Massachusetts is currently one of the most transparent states when it comes to access to birth or death certificates. But when it comes to access to other public records, think thick, dark clouds — not sunshine. This is the only state in the nation where the Legislature, judiciary, and governor’s office all claim to be exempt from state public records law. In 2018, after two years of studying how to expand the public records law, a legislative panel failed to reach agreement and disbanded.

Despite the governor’s early embrace of reform, the Baker administration is no lover of sunshine. Efforts to get e-mails between administration officials and entities and people doing business with the state have been blocked. State Police conveniently destroyed several years’ worth of payroll records that could have been used as key evidence in a federal case involving overtime abuse. The Department of Children and Families can’t or won’t produce data that could back up statistics about child deaths. Contempt for records was routine and accepted conduct at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, where nearly 13,000 out-of-state traffic violations were boxed and then forgotten.

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As Jeffrey J. Pyle, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment law told the Globe, many public records are used for academic research, investigation of criminal cases, and for investigations by the news media. The Enterprise newspaper of Brockton, for example, reported a series of stories in 2007 examining the true scope of the opioid crisis, in part by reviewing local death certificates in 28 cities and towns.

The Globe routinely seeks copies of birth and marriage certificates from the state. They are used to report on a vast range of stories, from identifying dead voters who were listed as voting in a city election, to helping to identify young children who died from abuse or neglect but were not fully investigated by the Department of Children and Families. In 2014, the Department of Public Health rejected a Globe request for electronic versions of the records, and a lower court judge upheld the denial on the basis of privacy concerns. However, in June, the Supreme Judicial Court instructed state agencies to broaden their understanding of the “public interest” when deciding requests under state public records law.

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Indeed, that’s what state agencies should be doing. Baker’s proposal is a perplexing attack on the public interest and ought to go nowhere fast.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.