Gannett’s Louisiana Papers Sue for Access to Tape of SecState’s 911 Call

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(AP) The state’s Gannett newspapers — The Times of Shreveport, The News-Star of Monroe, The Town Talk of Alexandria, The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, and The Opelousas Daily World — are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with the Louisiana Press Association and Gannett reporter John Hill, who works in the company’s capital bureau in Baton Rouge.

The lawsuit contends that 911 services are publicly funded and the tapes, therefore, are subject to Louisiana’s public-records law.

McKeithen, the state’s top elections official, injured his spinal cord in the fall Feb. 17, and doctors haven’t determined if his paralysis is temporary or permanent.

Gannett’s capital bureau filed a written public records request Feb. 21 to listen to the 911 call that summoned emergency services to McKeithen’s home, but the East Baton Rouge Parish attorney’s office — representing the parish Department of Emergency Medical Services — denied the request.

The parish attorney’s office cited the U.S. Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act, saying the 911 recording contains protected health information EMS cannot release.

The lawsuit asks EMS to turn over the tapes or show cause at a hearing why the tapes aren’t subject to the state’s public records law.

“The issue hasn’t been addressed by a court, although there are some attorneys general opinions that address the issue. The Mississippi attorney general’s opinion was that HIPAA did not pre-empt state public records laws,” said the newspapers’ attorney, William McNew of Monroe.

Gannett editors said there was an overriding public interest in the tapes.

“The public should have a full understanding of what happened that led to the paralysis of the secretary of state. The public should be able to participate in the future determinations of his ability to continue to conduct the duties of the office,” said Kathy Spurlock, News-Star executive editor.

Daily Advertiser Executive Editor Juli Metzger said the Lafayette newspaper frequently requests and gets copies of 911 tapes.

McKeithen continues to undergo rehabilitation at an Atlanta center that specializes in spinal cord injuries.

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