Ban on broadcast of 911 calls generates debate in Legislature

NO JAIL TIME: $10,000 fine for airing them on TV, radio, Internet.

March 24, 2010 

JUNEAU -- A hearing on a new bill that would make it a crime to broadcast 911 emergency calls started as expected Wednesday -- with a clash between the First Amendment and a victim's right of privacy.

But the hearing took an unexpected twist when it became clear that Alaska State Troopers routinely ignore the state's public records law, at least as the law is interpreted by the drafter of the measure and the aide to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna.

Victims' rights bills are always popular in an election year, and this one, House Bill 415, was introduced last week, a month before the end of the Legislative session. Its first hearing Wednesday was in the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which Olson chairs. By the close of the day, Olson agreed the bill needed a lot more work and decided to hold onto it in his committee for revisions and at least one more hearing.

Olson's bill was presented to the committee by his aide, Jennifer Senette, who said a new law was necessary to prevent the anguished voice of a victim of a crime, animal attack or accident from winding up on the evening news or heard millions of times on the Internet.

"The private, excruciating moments in the lives of individuals who call 911, they're splashed all over the airwaves for the public to hear, and that's not necessarily because there's any significant public value -- it's kind of because it brings in the ratings," Senette said. "People should be able to call 911 with the expectation that these calls will not be broadcast for everyone else to hear."

Olson cited the Alaska example of 13-year-old Petra Davis, attacked in 2008 by a bear during a 24-hour trail bike race in Anchorage's Far North Bicentennial Park. The audio of her call was broadcast nationally by NBC's Today Show, which had Davis and her rescuers on the program. The broadcast introduction to her call described her as being heroic as she desperately communicated with dispatchers.

Under Olson's bill, such a broadcast would be a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $10,000, but not with jail.

Senette described 911 calls as public records. The bill would prevent broadcast of the actual call on radio, television or the Internet. But transcripts of those calls would continue to be public record, Senette said.

"The sponsor's not arguing that these things should be pulled back from public records and these things should be confidential," Senette said. "Indeed there's a legitimate purpose to having these things out in the open -- disclosure laws ensure that our state agencies are accountable to the people that they serve, and this is something that the sponsor fully supports. It still would be a public record -- you just can't air it."

That apparently was news to the Alaska State Troopers.

The issue arose when two committee members, Reps. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, and Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, wondered why troopers said they would need to hire at least two additional people to implement the measure. Shouldn't there be less work for troopers, not more, they asked?

No, said Lt. Rodney Dial, based in Ketchikan, and Soldotna dispatch supervisor Tammy Goggia. Testifying by phone, both said troopers almost never fulfill media or public requests for tapes and reject requests for transcripts, as well.

Dial said some portions of 911 calls already are private under state law -- they might have a victim's address, phone number or Social Security number, or might contain information that would jeopardize an ongoing investigation, all exemptions to the state's public records law.

Dial said troopers don't have the manpower to edit that information from tapes, so they withhold the entire recording as a matter of routine. And because they withhold the audio, they also don't create transcripts.

But the specific declaration in Olson's bill that "the transcript of a recording of a 911 call is a public record" would require troopers to transcribe calls, then edit the transcript to eliminate nondisclosable conversation, Dial said.

Troopers will respond to subpoenas, Dial and Goggia said. The one exception for the public is when a family member asks to hear a 911 call, such as when it contains the last words of a loved one or when a baby is delivered at home or in a car with the help of a dispatcher, they said.

Wilson asked what would happen if her own life was saved by her 4-year-old calling 911 -- would she be unable to obtain the tape for her own family archives?

That would be the kind of exception troopers would probably honor, Goggia said.

But under the law, if Wilson then posted the audio to a family Web site or Facebook, she could be fined $10,000.

The law also makes no exception for a 911 call played in a trial that is covered by television.

Senette said the broadcast of 911 calls has led five states to ban release entirely and four more to impose restrictions. Legislation is pending in four additional states, including Alabama, the subject of a segment last week on National Public Radio's "On the Media." The Alabama bill contains a provision allowing a judge to release a tape if it's in the public interest, a provision not in the Alaska law. The Alabama measure also permits call transcripts.

Anchorage media lawyer John McKay testified by phone Wednesday and urged the committee to tread carefully on an issue that restricted public and media access to government information. The legislation had emerged very suddenly, he said, and he barely had time to look at it. He started his testimony from a hallway at the University of Alaska Anchorage and finished in the class he gives in communications law.

After the hearing, Olson said he inserted the criminal provisions in the bill to ensure it got a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. That committee can also ensure the constitutional questions are fully vetted, he said.

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