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September 4, 2009 at 11:43 AM

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Adam Kline, and letters to legislators

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

Crosscut had an interesting piece this week about State Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle. Kline, a trial lawyer, is on an official group, called the Sunshine Committee, that is reviewing state law about what things have to be disclosed to the public, and what don't. Generally, a letter or email by a citizen to a government official is public information, but a letter to a state legislator is not. The Sunshine Committee voted 8-1 to recommend to the Legisature that this exemption be ended, so that anyone could read letters and emails to any legislator. Kline was the one vote against.

Of course, this is a case of the Legislature passing a law for other people and exempting itself. That shows that legislators are self-interested. But so is the press. Not only are letters and emails to us not disclosable--because we're not part of the government--but we have a special law protecting our sources from certain subpoenas. What Kline asks of us is, What makes you so different?

There is some difference. He's paid by public money and we're not. Still--he has a case. The fact is, if every letter to you is public information, and every Tom, Dick and Harry can demand to read it, people with sensitive stuff won't write letters. The reason why journalists want to protect their sources is that they want to know what's going on. They want good information. If I were a legislator, I'd want the same thing.

I don't think they should have a special shield law--and I'm not sure that I should have one either. But I think legislators do have a case to be exempted from public-disclosure requirements here. One comment on the Crosscut site was by State Sen. Karen Keiser. She says, what if an employee writes about his employer's pay policy, or vacation policy, or some such thing. Do you want the employer to be able to look up what his employee wrote to a state senator? Probably an employer isn't going to do it, because he's got better things to do, but he might. It's not a ridiculous question.

I'm not sure what the answer is, here. What bothers me is that the people in journalism just immediately assume that all the information they want should be available to them, and all information they have should be available to nobody. We are quick to see self-dealing in others, but we decline to look in the mirror.

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