Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to prohibit the executive director of the state Office of Open Records from speaking publicly about active cases - essentially gagging an office designed to promote open government.
A bill being considered in Harrisburg would undermine crucial provisions of the state's open-records law and have a chilling effect on transparency.
The attempt to muzzle the office's director, Terry Mutchler, is particularly outrageous and out of line with other agencies. What if the attorney general were barred from commenting on an indictment until after the trial and all appeals were exhausted? The legislature should rebuff any such attempt to silence an official who has been an effective champion for openness.
Legislators are likely to get an earful from Mutchler and media groups on Monday, when the bill is expected to come up at a Senate committee hearing. They should also reject a proposed change in the law that would make it easier for bureaucrats to circumvent the law by declaring a records request "unduly burdensome." The same goes for a provision that would make it harder for the public to obtain documents when the state contracts with a private company.
The legislation, introduced last month by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) - who has generally advocated more open government - would make some welcome improvements to the 2008 open-records law. For example, it would give the Open Records Office clear-cut authority to review a document in private to determine if it should be public.
But the gag-order provision - dubbed "the Mutchler amendment" by those who suspect it's aimed at the current director's vigorous advocacy for transparency - would be detrimental to the public's interest in open government.
Mutchler's candid remarks during the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State, for example, garnered national attention and undoubtedly the ire of some lawmakers. Although it receives state funding, the university was able to block media requests for documents. Mutchler has also shed light on other serious flaws in the Right-to-Know Law that lawmakers have yet to fix.
The sheer volume of right-to-know cases - more than 6,000 over the past five years - shows the need for a better law. Too many government agencies arbitrarily refuse to release documents that are the public's business.
Still, Pennsylvania has come a long way since it had one of the worst open-records laws in the country. The legislature must make sure that doesn't happen again.