State legislators playing dangerously with First Amendment

State legislators in Frankfort really need to be careful when it comes to suppressing the media's ability to report on our elected officials as well as the right of their constituents to be informed.

In the past few years we have watched some legislators, mostly Republicans, go after the media like a pack of wolves. They've taken public notices out of newspapers and in doing so have caused several weekly newspapers to close their doors in our state. As this editorial is being written, they're trying to allow notices that are currently required to be published in newspapers to be shifted to a government website where people may have a harder time finding them, especially the 12% of Kentuckians who have no internet service.

We have said it before, and we will say it again, that we believe one of the main reasons that these legislators are targeting newspapers is because of their disdain for the state's two largest newspapers, the Louisville Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald Leader. These are admittedly left-leaning newspapers that aren't always friendly to Republicans in Frankfort, but many newspapers across the state have differing political views yet we are being treated like we speak with a single voice. At the end of the day, these politicians who are trying to make it harder for newspapers and the public to get public information need to have a lot thicker skin than they currently do.

This editorial is not simply about newspapers, because the public's interest is at stake here. Our job is simply to inform the public and act as a watchdog for how well elected officials are performing and how wisely our tax dollars are being spent.

Currently in Frankfort, Senate Bill 63 is being considered and should concern every citizen in our state. It's already cleared the state Senate and is now in the House waiting to be assigned to a committee. The bill would block the release of personal information about judges, prosecutors, elected officials, police officers and other officials, who could sue over the disclosure of those details.

If Senate Bill 63 becomes law, public agencies could not release "personally identifiable information" if those officials requested the protection. That would include records disclosing birth, marriage, property ownership and vehicle registration records as well as email addresses. It includes a provision that would allow judges to order the disclosure of otherwise-exempt information.

The bill would allow officials or their immediate family members to file a lawsuit if the information is disclosed. They could sue someone for spreading the information if they believe it was done to intimidate or harass them or was in response to a decision or intended to influence a future action. It also would apply if they have a reasonable fear of injury or harm to their property.

Under the bill, if anybody we mentioned above doesn't pay their property taxes their name couldn't be put on the delinquent tax publication because it contains an address.

Banks would not be able to get any property records/histories if this becomes law.

Newspapers like ours that publish deeds periodically would have to omit addresses from deeds filed by public officials.

This is a preposterous bill that we believe is clear violation of the Kentucky Open Records Act, not to mention the First Amendment.

Supporters portray the measure as a personal-protection safeguard for officials involved in the criminal justice system by shielding the release of home addresses, phone numbers and employment or school locations. The bill also would apply to the officials' spouses, children and parents.

What they're not telling the public in this very weak attempt at spin is newspapers don't print home addresses unless given consent, don't print places of employment other than their official government titles and don't print dates of birth, vehicle registration records or email addresses. We don't print the names of schools where elected officials' children attend nor do we publish information about their spouses.

This ill-advised attempt to shield the public from information that they have every right to know about is a blatant slap in the face to the taxpayers who pay these legislators' salaries.

What these same Republican legislators don't want the public to know is that some of them call this newspaper and others asking to run a story promoting something good that they've done. Some call us, usually off the record, to ask us to run a hit piece on an opposing candidate during an election cycle. We in turn politely tell them to sling their own dirt.

We readily concede there are good legislators on both sides of the aisle, and we don't want to be like those who want to punish all of us because of their dislike of our state's two largest newspapers.

Could you imagine the huge impact and nightmare this bill would be for PVA and county and city clerk offices across our state if it becomes law? Those offices would be inundated with requests to remove information of all elected officials in the state's 120 counties so the media and the public wouldn't have access to it. There would be costs to the taxpayers to have this overhaul done in every county.

The taxpayers of this state should be outraged at what the Republicans are doing.

If Senate Bill 63 becomes law, newspapers wouldn't be allowed to do advance stories that an elected official is coming to Bowling Green on a certain day nor would we be allowed to say before trial what judge was going to be hearing the case. Everything we would write about public officials and police officers would have to be in the past tense. This is not only bad for newspapers and the reporters who have to write stories in the past tense, but it would be very sad for our subscribers and other newspapers' subscribers because they would be reading old news.

These are all very good reasons why Senate Bill 63 shouldn't become law.

We have news for these legislators who we believe are attempting to pass legislation that appears illegal and that would cripple media coverage: You need us, and you won't get the positive coverage you crave from time to time on Facebook and Twitter.

This repugnant bill may ultimately pass. We are confident, however, that it won't survive judicial scrutiny because of First Amendment concerns.

We urge readers in our coverage area to call your legislators today and urge him/her to vote against Senate Bill 63. It's an attack on transparency, the public's right to know and the First Amendment.

Any legislator who supports this bill should be embarrassed.

THE DAILY NEWS

Bowling Green, Kentucky

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