Advocates say tight budget in Oklahoma is leading to open-press threats

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — While the news media nationally are facing new perils with the rise of fake news on social media and attempts to discredit legitimate reporting, press freedom advocates in Oklahoma say legislative threats this year to the public's access to government center mostly on agencies trying to save money.

Amid another cash-strapped state budget, some agencies are looking at ways to potentially save this year by restricting the public's access to records or information, said Mark Thomas, executive vice president for the Oklahoma Press Association, which represents daily and weekly newspapers across the state.

"When I look at a lot of the bills this year, they are bills to give government bodies the opportunity to sell their records or restrict access to records to help the government ... make money," said Thomas, a lobbyist who has worked with lawmakers for more than 20 years to defeat or narrowly tailor bills that may restrict the public's access to government and its records.

In the past, Thomas said issues like terrorism led to government efforts to keep information secret because of security concerns, like details about public buildings or utilities. Last year, a family upset about details of their son's autopsy published in a newspaper led to restrictions on releasing those reports.

Among the bills Thomas has concerns with this year is House Bill 3324, a bill requested by the Tulsa County sheriff that would allow counties to destroy most body camera footage after 90 days. The bill includes exceptions, including recordings that depict officer-involved shootings, use of lethal force or incidents for which a written application is made. Some sheriffs are concerned about the cost of storing digital records, but Thomas said that's the kind of information that belongs to the public and the importance of which may not be immediately known.

"It was seven years, now it's a year, and now they want 90 days," Thomas said. "That's much too short."

Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado said he thinks body-worn cameras benefit both the department and the public, but he's concerned the storage costs could make the program cost prohibitive.

"What we're seeing is those systems can be quite costly, and the majority of that has to do with (data) storage," Regalado said.

Other bills Thomas is monitoring would allow the Department of Corrections to keep secret certain records about an inmate's family or allow some board discussion — on subjects like private prison rates or prison industries — to take place behind closed doors.

One bill would keep secret certain juvenile criminal records, while others would allow for the sale of some court records.

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The Gayly. March 12, 2018. 11:12 a.m. CST.