COLUMBIA -- The S.C. House is considering two bills that could change the way South Carolina residents get information from police and their local and state governments.
Freedom of Information Act experts like one bill, which could reduce administrative and copying costs for records, but fear the other one could allow law enforcement too much latitude to decide which information gets released to the public.
Supporters of the law enforcement bill said it is needed to protect crime witnesses and victims.
Police agencies across the state are already illegally restricting information, said media lawyer Jay Bender.
Bender said a bill sponsored by 34 House members could make those kinds of decisions legal. The bill filed by state Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Summerville, would allow a public body to refuse to release to the public "information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution."
"That could be practically any information the police don't want to release," Bender said.
Currently, law enforcement, prosecutors or defense attorneys have the burden of proof to show why certain information -- such as the current fight over whether to release dashboard camera video of a shooting that killed an Aiken police officer -- should not be released. Bender's take on the new law is that the public would have to prove why it shouldn't be released.
"Why should people who want information generated by their tax money have to spend their own money to get that information?" Bender said.
Murphy has said the bill would "protect victims and witnesses, and the integrity of the criminal trial process."
He said the bill would make the state's FOIA law similar to the federal statute, in that it would allow law enforcement agencies to withhold information to protect crime victims and witnesses.
The bill is in the House Judiciary Committee.
The other FOI bill in the House has just four sponsors and is also in committee. The bill would ban public agencies from charging more than fair market rates for copies.
Bender said he had heard agencies charging up to $2, and they routinely charge 25 cents or more.
The proposal would also keep agencies from charging any more than the actual cost of searching for a record. Some public bodies have passed on the cost of having a lawyer review the records before they are released.
The sponsor of the bill is Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, a media consultant who made the bill the top item on a recent emailed memo to his constituents.
"You have a right to know what your government is doing and why," Taylor wrote. "After all, you're paying for it!"