IN THREE YEARS, unless states have imposed new "opt-out" provisions, information from their motor vehicle records will be closed to journalists ? regardless of whether the information had been available before.
Included in the crime bill recently signed by President Clinton is a measure that greatly restricts access to drivers' information, unless a state has enacted new regulations allowing individuals to "opt-out" ? that is, the information would be available unless a person specifically requests it not be released.
Journalism groups and others fought a difficult battle in the House and Senate over this issue, as the original proposals would have cut off the information altogether.
Those in favor of restricting access to a driver's personal information, such as an address and telephone number, cited public safety ? notably thwarting potential stalkers ? as their main impetus.
There was no hearing on the issue in the Senate before the measure was tacked onto the crime bill by its sponsor, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
In the House, where there was a hearing, the state-by-state opt-out was proposed, and later agreed upon as the least objectionable option (E&P, Feb. 12, p. 19; April 30, p. 43).
Now that the battle is over in the Congress, the fight moves to the states, where legislatures have three years to enact an opt-out system before the crime bill takes effect.
To that end, the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee, headed by Lucy Dalglish, is revving up its 50 Project Sunshine chairpeople to start action in their states.
"This is something with a deadline that absolutely has to be done in all 50 states," said Dalglish.
The FoI Committee distributed informational packets to members at the recent SPJ annual meeting, and is planning to bring its Project Sunshine chairpeople to Washington early in December for a workshop on how to get this legislation passed in their states. The workshop also will be open to others interested in the issue.
Sample editorials, sample legislation and how-to tips, such as finding a legislator sympathetic to the issue and how to lobby also will be provided to the states by the FoI Committee, Dalglish said.
"I would like to see a good, solid attempt made in all 50 states," she said, adding she is "not naive enough to believe we will be successful in all 50 states," and conceding that some newspapers may support closing the records.
Dalglish said the committee has had some trouble getting journalists fired up about the issue. Some, she said, just do not believe it will happen, while others think that since they have three years before enactment, they can deal with it later.
"I recommend they take care of it now," she said, adding that even though it may prematurely cut off states with wide-open access, if it's not done, all access could be lost, so it's better for the future.
SPJ also is calling upon members to publicize the issue as much as possible, through editorials and news stories emphasizing not only the journalistic problems but also the public's right to the information.
"Reporters are not going to suggest a story about the media business. They think their editors will say no one is interested in us," Dalglish said. "We have to position this as a matter of the public being turned down.
"Also, publishers are used to lobbying. Reporters are observers. We have to teach them to stand up and say, 'I can talk to you about this bill.' It does not come naturally to them," she added.
Addressing the potential conflict of interest, Dalglish said each newsroom or SPJ chapter could appoint one person to work on this ? obviously not someone covering the legislature ? and someone who could testify before the appropriate committees.
"There comes a time when you really have to participate in the democracy instead of just writing about it," she said.
"If we don't speak up about this, then we've lost."
The committee also is watching Congress for any opportunity to change the provision, and is contemplating First Amendment lawsuits in states that now have open records, where it may argue that the law is unconstitutional because it closes off previously available information.
By: Debra Gersh Hernandez President Clinton's crime bill includes a measure that restricts access to drivers' information, unless a state has enacted new regulations allowing individuals to "opt-out"