States clammed up after 9 11

 
Open government restrictions since 9/11
Source: Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University
The 2001 terrorist attacks led every state but South Dakota to restrict access to information deemed critical to homeland security - from architectural blueprints to emergency evacuation routes, according to a comprehensive, state-by-state study of post-9/11 changes to open-government laws.

Wary of terrorists, state lawmakers closed government meetings previously open to the public, denied residents access to disaster-response plans and concealed documents on mass-transit systems, energy companies and research laboratories, according to the findings.

Nationwide, states have enacted scores of restrictions since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the congressionally funded study, "State Open Government Law and Practice in a Post 9/11 World," formally released Thursday (Nov. 15) by the Center for Terrorism Law based at St. Mary's University in Texas .

Most of the restrictions cover information on critical infrastructure and cyber security, while as few as half the states have restricted access to documents relating to public health and terror investigations.

South Dakota passed legislation creating a state homeland security agency. But it is the only state not to restrict access to six categories of information outlined in the study.

Nevada , on the other hand, was among states that most aggressively approved new restrictions in the wake of Sept. 11. Beyond limiting public access to documents and closing meetings, the Legislature also spelled out new responsibilities for state agencies, including identifying sites of potential terrorist attacks ranging from the Capitol Complex in Carson City to lakes and places of public worship.

Pete Weitzel, a Washington, D.C., consultant to the study, said that six years after the worst-ever attacks on American soil, some states are beginning to ease some of the restrictions and strike a fresh balance between homeland security and citizens' right to know.

Weitzel, the freedom-of-information coordinator for the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government , an open-government advocacy group, said states increasingly are trying to keep information available that can be important to "public safety" - such as uninspected bridges - without sacrificing "public security."

"The flames of 9/11 confused the meanings of 'safety' and 'security' in the minds of the public and … the responses of the body politic," Weitzel said.

In Pennsylvania , for example, lawmakers this month are debating whether to make some government information public again. In Florida , Gov. Charlie Crist (R) created an Office of Open Government immediately after taking office in January. The office is designed to "ensure that government's actions are always transparent and accountable to taxpayers," according to the governor's office .

The study details restrictions on six categories of government information: critical infrastructure, cyber security, first response, political structure, public health and terror investigations. Each category cites a wide range of information no longer available to the public.

Fourteen states passed restrictions in all six categories.

Hawaii and Minnesota restricted information in only one of the six areas - political structure, which encompasses changes to executive authority. Both states expanded their powers to close meetings to the public.

Eight states - Hawaii, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont - have not moved to restrict information on critical infrastructure, which includes information on energy companies and public utilities, mass transit and telecommunications systems.

Seven states - Arizona , Hawaii , Michigan , Minnesota , Mississippi , South Dakota , Wisconsin - also have not concealed information on cyber security, which covers information on identity theft and cyber-terrorism security procedures.

The 50-state analysis, available only in book form, was released on the first of a two-day conference on state open-records laws in Washington , D.C. It was funded by a grant from the Air Force Research Laboratory.  

 
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