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Gary Kenton: Our right to know is the bedrock of democracy

Gary Kenton: Our right to know is the bedrock of democracy

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Do North Carolina citizens have a right to know what government agencies do? A case that has been winding through state courts for more than five years may go a long way toward answering that question.

Early in 2016, Zared Jones and three other young Black men were arrested by Greensboro police outside a downtown club. Although charges were dropped the following May, Jones filed a lawsuit against the city of Greensboro for wrongful arrest and harassment. Private videos of the incident (available on YouTube) appear to corroborate his claim.

The Greensboro City Council was asked by supporters of Jones to review police body camera footage of the incident, but because of a controversial state law — HB 972 — they had to seek a court order to get permission to look at the videos. Keep in mind, these are videos taken by our city employees with expensive body cameras that we paid for.

In effect, HB 972, known as the “Faircloth Law” (after state Rep. John Faircloth, a former Salisbury and High Point police chief), creates a giant exception to the N.C. Public Records Act. That state law defines public records to include all documents or materials made or received by a government agency in North Carolina while conducting public business, and states that “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”

In early 2018, N.C. Superior Court Judge Susan Bray ruled that City Council members could watch the videos but imposed a “gag order” that prevented them from discussing anything they might see. Not only was the public denied direct access to the information contained in these “public records,” but elected officials were prevented from sharing their reaction to that information with us!

Rather than watch the video but not be able to talk about it, the City Council decided not to watch it at all. Some viewed this as a dereliction of duty, feeling that elected officials have a responsibility to monitor police behavior, especially when abuse of power is alleged. But, commendably, in 2019 the Greensboro Council filed an appeal with the N.C. Supreme Court to overturn Judge Bray’s gag order.

The city’s legal action was supported by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, the Pulpit Forum of Greensboro and Vicinity, several media outlets, and other organizations. The amicus brief filed in the case argues, in part, that “In constraining the ability of the City Council to discuss the video, the Court of Appeals opinion subverts the constitutional rights of the people to ensure that their elected government officials are effectively representing their interests.”

Nearly two years later, the N.C. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

For many who supported the City Council in the effort to have the gag order lifted, the hope was not only that the court would allow the Zared Jones video to be shared with the public, but that it would provide a precedent to challenge the Faircloth Law, which places controversial interactions between police officers and citizens beyond public scrutiny.

What is at stake here goes far beyond the treatment of Zared Jones. He is one of many people who have raised questions about their treatment by local law enforcement, a list that includes Marcus Smith, Jose Charles, Tasha Thomas, Jorge Cornell and too many others.

Yes, there will be instances where police videos or other public records may be reasonably withheld for legitimate legal or public safety reasons. But surveys indicate that most officers support the sharing of videos, understanding that the footage will generally show them performing their duties in a professional manner. When controversies arise, the burden of proof should be on the police to demonstrate a compelling reason to withhold the videos or other public information.

Without transparency there can be no accountability. A society in which citizens don’t know what is being done by their government agencies cannot call itself a democracy.

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