Government Secrecy Must Not Be the Legacy of Mass Shooting

A message from Executive Director David Snyder

Friends,

A 2018 mass shooting at a Southern California nightclub left 13 dead, including the shooter and a law enforcement officer who responded to the scene. As the story unfolded over the following weeks, journalists covering this horrific event sought public records, including autopsy reports.

It’s the grim work of reporters to review death records and inform their readers about a community’s darkest moments. But in the case of the massacre at the Borderline Bar & Grill in the Ventura County city of Thousand Oaks, those records have remained secret. 

The reason for the secrecy is unacceptable. A judge blocked their release based on the prospect of a future law change. That threatens the integrity of the California Public Records Act. Now we are asking a California appeal court to undo this alarming decision, which has kept the public in the dark for too long.

FAC, joined by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the California News Publishers Association, filed an amicus brief urging the Second District Court of Appeal to rule in favor of transparency. In our brief supporting the Los Angeles Times, Ventura County Star and Associated Press, we explain that the reasoning for ongoing secrecy is simply wrong — incorrect as a matter of longstanding California law and therefore a violation of the public’s fundamental right of access to government records.

A judge granted an injunction sought by families of some of the deceased based solely on the existence of proposed legislation — legislation that never became law. Whether such legislation is good public policy — and we contend it is not and worked with press and civil liberties groups to combat a flawed bill — matters not. Injunctions cannot be granted based on a potential future law change.

Autopsy reports have long been subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act. While there are reasons agencies may delay or deny the release of certain information or images, that’s not what happened in the Borderline case. Here, the trial judge blocked access completely and indefinitely, depriving the public of information that could shed light on the government’s actions in an unspeakable tragedy.

​​There are real conversations to be had about privacy versus the public’s right to know, but that’s not what’s happening in the case decided by Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh. We hope the Court of Appeal sees that.

Thank you for your interest in our work.

David Snyder
Executive Director

Court records:

Amicus brief by FAC, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and California News Publishers Association

Opening brief and reply brief by LA Times, Ventura County Star and Associated Press

Recommended reading:
Autopsy records withheld by judge in hopes Legislature will act on Irwin’s bill (Ventura County Star)
Serious flaws in police response to Borderline shooting caused delays (LA Times)
CHP officer’s bullet killed sheriff’s deputy who responded to Thousands Oaks bar shooting (LA Times)
Letter in Opposition to Assembly Bill 268 on autopsy sealing (FAC)
Editorial: Don’t seal autopsy reports in secrecy (Ventura County Star)
Op-ed: Why barring access to autopsy reports hurts public safety and accountability (LA Times)
Column: Why restricting media access to autopsy reports would reduce accountability. Pause on AB 268. (Julie Makinen and Stacie Galang)

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