Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office has ruled that police can withhold video of a bizarre encounter last month between Foxborough police and a shirtless New England Patriots player, fueling a larger debate over whether Galvin’s office is too willing to let government agencies keep information from the public.
Galvin’s office said releasing the video of the police officers and Chandler Jones, a defensive end with the football team, “would result in embarrassment to an individual of normal sensibilities.”
“I find the individual’s privacy interests in this matter outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure,” wrote Shawn Williams, the attorney in Galvin’s office charged with overseeing public records appeals, in a decision dated Feb. 17.
But public records experts pointed out that the encounter occurred in a public place — the parking lot at the police station — where police and citizens alike have little expectation of privacy. A source told the Globe last month that Jones suffered a bad reaction to synthetic marijuana and went to the station to seek help.
“The secretary of state’s office has expanded the public records law’s ‘personal privacy’ exemption to a ridiculous extreme,” said Robert Bertsche, a media attorney with the Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP. “The video in question shows a public figure walking through the most public of spaces — the parking lot of a municipal police station.”
The ruling comes at a time when Galvin’s office has already been accused of making one of the country’s weakest public records laws even weaker by giving so much deference to agencies that withhold records. In the past six years, Galvin’s office has referred only a single alleged violation of public records law to the attorney general’s office for enforcement.
The Globe and other requesters have frequently had more success obtaining records through the courts than through the secretary of state’s office, though that route is costly and time consuming.
Last week, Suffolk Superior Court Judge William F. Sullivan told the Massachusetts State Police to provide the Globe birthdates for state troopers, which the paper wanted to use to look up driving records of officers who had been caught driving drunk or had been involved in serious crashes.
The police, attorney general’s office, and Galvin’s office unsuccessfully argued the records were exempt under a law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, saying release of the birthdates would likely jeopardize the public’s safety. Judge Sullivan disagreed, noting the Globe did not plan to publish the birthdates and that the government had already released birthdates for other employees with no harm to workers.
Sullivan’s ruling marks at the least the sixth time citizens have successfully sued to obtain records in the past five years after unsuccessfully appealing to Galvin’s office. The attorney general’s office, meanwhile, could come up with only one instance during that span when citizens sued to obtain records and a judge sided with Galvin’s denial.
Last October, the Supreme Judicial Court overruled a decision by Galvin’s office that a parent of a special needs child was not entitled to documents showing how much the Town of Weston was paying to educate other students with special needs.
“They were totally unhelpful in my case,” said the parent, Michael Champa, who was honored last week by the New England First Amendment Coalition for his legal fight. He said the court battle cost him more than $100,000 in legal fees.
The Globe also successfully sued for records in two other recent cases where Galvin’s office ruled the records were exempt. In one, the Globe was seeking records of botched surgeries from the state medical board (without patient names); in the other, the Globe asked for the names of people and organizations that received money from a state fund for legal settlements and judgments.
Galvin wasn’t available for an interview this week, and a spokesman, Brian McNiff, said he did not know how often the courts have upheld the office’s rulings. However, McNiff said: “This office follows the courts’ decisions on public records matters however they interpret the law.”
Last week’s rulings involving the Chandler Jones video were prompted by appeals by the Globe, the Boston Herald, and New England Cable News after a strange incident involving the Patriots player last month.
According to police, Jones scurried through the parking lot and headed toward the station’s back door, wearing blue sweat pants but no shirt.
After he was confronted by police, he got down on his knees and placed his hands behind his head. Jones was later taken to Norwood Hospital, apparently after a bad drug reaction.
The police department said officers went to his house and noticed the smell of burnt marijuana, but Jones was not arrested or charged with a crime. In a radio call captured by a private company, an officer also reported that “he was definitely involved with Class D” — a category of drugs that includes marijuana.
Jones later apologized, but didn’t provide more details.
Some media reports questioned whether Jones received special treatment, since he wasn’t charged with any drug offenses and Foxborough Police Chief Edward O’Leary initially denied his department had any dealings with Jones. In addition, police refused to release the video, and a Foxborough police lieutenant edited the dispatch log after the incident. The town also acknowledged that the police chief earned $43,381 last year performing paid security details at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots play, but insisted it wasn’t a conflict of interest because he was paid through the town.
“The matter was handled in the same manner and with the same protocols that would apply to a request by any member of the general public for medical aid,” William G. Keegan Jr., the Foxborough town manager, said last month.
Galvin’s office also ruled that Foxborough police were permitted to redact “medical information” from the incident report.
Bertsche, the media attorney, said he was disturbed by the secretary of state’s finding that there was no public interest in releasing the video. He thought releasing the video could allow the public to see whether it matched the police department’s official account of what occurred.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Bertsche said.
And Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said she has been repeatedly disappointed with Galvin’s office.
“Decision after decision is head-slappingly pro-government and anti-requester,” Wilmot said. “Instead of vigorous enforcement of the law, the office has approved denials that literally make no sense and make a weak law even weaker.”
Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.