By: Ron Chepesiuk
LAST YEAR, THE Charleston News and Courier in South Carolina published a series of investigative articles on the city’s school bus drivers and their driving records.
Today, the News and Courier would not be able to publish the series, thanks to a new state law that closes public access to motor-vehicle license records.
“It was a surprise to see such a law passed,” revealed John Shurr, South Carolina bureau chief of Associated Press (AP) and chairman of the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) Committee of the South Carolina Press Association. “Any infringement of the public’s access to information like driver’s license records is a concern.”
The records are now secret because of an amendment that was attached to a bill regulating abortion and abortion clinics. In January, former governor Carroll Campbell signed the bill into law. It requires that women be given more information about fetal development before getting an abortion.
“It was a shock to learn the bill had passed,” explained Jay Bender, a lawyer who specializes in news media issues. “It was a floor amendment late in the debate over the abortion bill. Nobody was paying attention.”
Sen. Holly Cork of Hilton Head, who authored the provision, told the press that driver’s license records need to be kept secret to protect workers at abortion clinics from harassment, as well as the pregnant women who go there.
“Radical groups write down the license plate numbers, and follow up with harassing phone calls and harassing visits,” Cork explained. “Pictures of fetuses, and that kind of thing, are pretty routine.”
Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, disagreed with Cork and said the South Carolina legislature is making law by anecdote.
“One person in California gets stalked because of driver’s license records, and all over the country we have a stampede to close those records,” he said. “No one has been able to point to one instance in South Carolina where an individual was harassed, stalked or in any way improperly contacted as a result of motor-vehicle registration information being disclosed.”
Several South Carolina legislators also want the records closed because they believe the state should not release information that can be sold and used for commercial purposes.
“Those politicians resented the fact that their names ended up on mailing lists, or [they] were solicited because information about their motor vehicle license was sold,” Bender explained.
Reporters in South Carolina have differing opinions about how the lack of access to motor-vehicle license records will affect their work. Shurr said AP reporters don’t use the records much, but Dan Huntley, a Charlotte Observer reporter, who covers South Carolina, says the lack of access will adversely affect his work.
“It is standard practice for me to check driver’s license records any time there is a wreck [on my beat],” Huntley explained. “I often come up with a lot of interesting things.”
The insurance industry has also expressed alarm about the potential harm in keeping driver’s records closed. Many insurance companies have fraud investors who need that information, the industry spokesmen complain.
Sources say they expect the media and the insurance industry to work together to change the law.
“We haven’t coalesced yet, but there’s widespread interest in coordinating our efforts,” Bender said.
Can the law be changed?
“A bill is working its way through the state legislature at the moment to do just that, but there is much concern in the state legislature about recent violence at abortion clinics,” Bender said
Rogers believes it’s unlikely that the bill will be repealed this legislative session. “There are other things with higher priority on the legislative agenda,” he explained. “Besides, too many legislators believe the people shouldn’t have access to those records.”
?( Chepesiuk, a Rock Hill, S.C.-based freelance journalist, is a frequent contributor to E&P) [Caption]