A brief embargo on public information has ended in Iowa. Last week, a memo from the Iowa Department Transportation warned law enforcement agencies not to give out information on incidents they handle, and reporters found they were unable to report the details of traffic accidents to the public. Kathleen Richardson, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, says the D-O-T memo had “a chilling effect” on the release of information from vehicle incident reports. The D-O-T memo told law enforcement officials they couldn’t say much more than “There was an accident and this was where it occurred,” couldn’t even tell who was involved or how serious it was. Richardson says it was an “almost surreal situation,” where things were happening but police couldn’t talk about it, journalists couldn’t report it, and the public didn’t know what was going on. She says the question was brought to the attention of the state Attorney General’s office. Richardson says the state’s top legal analysts determined the new order making information classified was wrong. The state law regulating the D-O-T had been amended last year to require release of information about a vehicle accident, including where and when it happened and facts surrounding it, including the names of people involved. The D-O-T has sent local law-enforcement agencies a new memo explaining the situation and telling them they can talk to reporters about local incidents as they always have. Richardson says some people don’t understand why events including unhappy ones are reported in the news. She says people who know there was a police car outside a neighbor’s house or that an accident happened will be curious to know what was happening and how serious an incident was, but it’s also important for people to be able to know what’s going on in the community. Richardson says even within journalism the debate continues about whether to name victims of crimes or other people involved. The idenfitication of crime victims is a big issue, she says, “both ethically and legally,” for example identifying victims in a sexual assault case, and journalists handle it very carefully, she says. Many have newsroom policies of not naming minors, or crime victims, unless there’s some compelling reason like an unusually high-profile case or they’re someone already in the public eye.
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