So here’s how it went up at the Capitol Monday in the debate over access to history, House Bill 5499.
A bevy of advocates from mental health advocacy agencies kept telling legislators that people’s privacy shouldn’t be violated, even 150 years after their deaths. On my side were folks seeing the value to society of historical research and biographies.
The secrecy advocates kept insisting that names must be redacted. I was hoping the legislators were wondering how do you redact a biography? The most sensible person in the hearing room, State Librarian Kendall Wiggin, quietly testified that it is about our ancient practice of storytelling.
This battle has been waged in Hartford for five years ever since the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services secretly inserted “privacy” legislation into the 37th section of a 98-section funding bill in the wee hours on the last day of the 2011 legislative session. Virtually no legislator knew they were voting on it. In fact, when DMHAS proposed the bill in the General Administration and Elections Committee, it was killed by the committee.
What that bill did was make it illegal to make public the records of Civil War soldiers suffering from “soldiers heart” –today known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and the records of why Amy Archer Gilligan, a century ago, started killing those she was caring for in her old persons home. She was a mass murderer, and a Connecticut writer working on a biography of her was stopped cold.
Wouldn’t it be helpful to the public, in this mass murdering age, to know why someone was capable of such atrocities? Our mental health experts all said nay, and enlisted at least one legislator to repeat the mantra “redact, redact, redact.” So we’d get a biography not on Amy Archer Gilligan, but on “The Story of Connecticut’s First Mass Murderer (name redacted).”
So allow me to disagree with Suzi Craig, Senior Director of Advocacy at Mental Health Connecticut, who allowed that, “Historical research is a worthy endeavor. Yet, in this instance . . . we lose something much greater: the violation of privacy rights and the trust of our fellow residents.”
The bill allows for the release of information 75 years and 50 years AFTER the death of individuals. It is the standard of the National Archives and the stringent HIPAA laws. But not in Connecticut.
Our State Library keeps Connecticut’s historical records, more than 43,000 cubic feet of records documenting the evolution of state public policy, the rights of citizens, the development of state laws and regulations, and the history of Connecticut and its people. Wiggins testified that our archives “have significant historical and research value beyond that original purpose . . . (we are) guided by the assumption that most records judged to be confidential today may over time become open, public records.”
Since we stood up on our hind legs, human beings have been telling stories. Since before we could write, we told stories. Storytelling is what makes us human. Formulating and evaluating stories is how we reason, communicate, figure things out.
Five years ago it wasn’t against the law in Connecticut to get historical records. Now, after the mental health community’s end run around proper legislative practice, it is time to once again enable our historians and researchers and poets and biographers access to the information they need to explain who we are to each other.
James H. Smith, a journalist for more than four decades, is president of the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.