Our View: Legislature hurt you by voting to restrict public information
On Wednesday, the state's House of Representatives committed a shameful act against the good people of North Dakota by voting to pass an amended version of Senate Bill 2310. Its aim: to limit the information on law enforcement accident reports available to the public.
The brainchild of Sen. Dave Oehlke, R-Devils Lake, originally called for a virtual blackout of identifying information, ensuring that any requested accident report was virtually useless to any member of the public, including newspapers, and to his intended target: companies "phishing" for information. Exemptions allowing for a fully disclosed report included any party involved in the accident, their legal representatives or their insurers.
The amended version passed by the House may not be as poisonous to the health of North Dakota as was originally intended, but a precedent of keeping the public in the dark could be set with but a wave of the governor's pen.
Wednesday's version of SB 2310 calls for the redaction of an involved party's driver's license number, address, phone number, insurance company name and -- arguably the most damaging redaction included -- their date of birth. As newspapers have a practice of not publishing the names of juveniles involved with law enforcement matters, how will we distinguish who is a juvenile and who is not?
Oehlke's reprehensible adversary to the public's right to know was introduced after the state Department of Motor Vehicles complained of receiving bulk record requests. Lawmakers theorized that the records were being used by insurance companies, law firms and chiropractors looking to drum up business.
Despite an utter lack of mercilessly stalked North Dakotans forced to change their phone numbers to avoid sales calls or forced to pack up and sell their homes to avoid the unrelenting junk mail generated by the release of accident reports, the Senate nearly unanimously gave its support to the bill.
The sole senator defending North Dakota's right to information was Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson.
Armstrong voted against the bill, rightly suggesting that clamping shut the valve of public information would bring harm to the journalism industry, which accesses public information through the same channels available to any member of the public. A strike against North Dakota's newspapers is a strike against the public itself, as we are charged with delivering to you information on and about our government. Armstrong's fellow senators ignorantly believed that journalists will gain access to the information regardless of the law. (Note: We are not above the law.)
The House argument focused on identity theft and the ease with which the crime is committed today. Lawmakers argued the state made it easier by granting access to the information included in an accident report, ignoring the fact that in order to obtain a report, the person making the request must leave a paper trail.
That leads to a subsequent argument of how many criminals leave their name, address and phone number with authorities just before they commit a crime? Anyhow, the House vote on Wednesday was much closer than the Senate's, passing the bill 53-40.
Your local representatives voting in favor of keeping you, the public, in the dark on government-generated information include District 31 Reps. Karen M. Rohr, R-Mandan, and Jim Schmidt, R-Mandan; District 36 Rep. Alan Fehr, R-Dickinson; District 37 Reps. Nancy Johnson, R-Dickinson, and Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson; and District 39 Reps. David Drovdal, R-Arnegard, and Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman.
Your lone local representative voting to keep public information public was District 36's Mike Schatz, R-New England, who told The Dickinson Press on Wednesday that he has never been in favor of infringing on anyone's freedoms, especially those in the media.
Schatz and Armstrong are deserving of commendation for upholding the rights of the people of North Dakota. The rest have voted to take away your rights, deeming the public a nuisance to the government. We'll let you decide on who is the true nuisance.
The Dickinson Press editorial board consists of Publisher Harvey Brock, Managing Editor Dustin Monke and News Editor Klark Byrd.