Several bills under consideration in Harrisburg threaten to trample the public's right to know. Pennsylvanians can only hope that the measures' worst potential consequences are unintended.
The legislation includes bills that could help rogue cops escape scrutiny, impede media coverage of the courts, and hide where elected officials live - like, say, in another state.
One particularly troubling measure would suppress police body camera recordings taken in private homes. That would defeat the purpose of the cameras in situations where they might provide a valuable objective record. Lawmakers supporting the bill may claim that its goal is to protect privacy, but the public has a legitimate interest in being able to review police actions if they draw complaints.
After a series of high-profile deaths at the hands of law enforcement, police agencies around the country are equipping officers with body cameras for good reason. They promise not only to capture police wrongdoing but to clear officers when suspicions are unwarranted.
Harrisburg's attempt to censor these devices is especially ill-timed given the recent release of dashboard camera video showing a Chicago officer shooting a teenager 16 times. Contrary to the version of events provided by the city, which hid the recording until it was ordered released, the video does not show the youth provoking the attack. What it does show was enough for prosecutors to charge the officer with murder last week; Chicago's police superintendent resigned Tuesday.
Another bill in Harrisburg would conceal the names of officers who shoot civilians until after they investigate themselves. That would undermine Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey's reasonable policy of releasing names within 72 hours of an officer-involved shooting. If lawmakers really want to help police, they should find ways to improve training and equipment and crack down on illegal guns.
Yet another poorly conceived bill would make it a crime to take a picture in the ill-defined "environs" of a courtroom. This may be intended to stop witness intimidation, but that's already a crime. The bill would expose the news media to prosecution for covering the criminal justice system. And recent disclosures about bigoted and pornographic emails exchanged among judges and prosecutors underscore the need for robust coverage.
Some lawmakers are also supporting legislation to conceal the addresses of many government employees - including themselves.