Court backs Press Herald in public access appeal

In a case that the Portland Press Herald took to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, joined by the MPA and other public-access advocates, the court has rejected the state’s practice of withholding transcripts from 911 calls in homicide cases.
The unanimous decision, issued Nov. 14, compelled the Attorney General’s Office to release transcripts of 911 calls made right before and after three people were shot in Biddeford on Dec. 29.
In ruling that such documents are public records, the court overturned a lower-court ruling that releasing them could interfere with the prosecution of James Pak, who is charged with killing two people and wounding one.
The Press Herald sought transcripts of three 911 calls to learn what dispatchers were told and why police initially considered the situation a “civil issue” and left just minutes before the shootings.
The justices’ ruling says, “We conclude that the state failed to meet its burden of establishing the reasonable possibility that disclosure of the Pak E-9-1-1 transcripts would interfere with law enforcement proceedings.”
Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Press Herald, said, “The court has made it clear that government secrecy cannot win out over the public’s right to know. This ruling will allow the public to better evaluate how well first responders protect and serve their communities.”
Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty, the attorney who represented the Press Herald in the appeal, said the ruling will have a broader effect on the public’s right to know.
“It does reject the notion that we can have a sort of categorical assertion that records held by law enforcement are confidential,” he told the newspaper in a story published Nov. 15.
The MPA and five other groups joined the Press Herald in the lawsuit, filing amicus briefs with the court: the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the New England First Amendment Center, the Maine Association of Broadcasters and The Associated Press.