Senator to address state's FOIA laws

The South Carolina Statehouse. Grace Beahm/Staff

Two recent rulings by the South Carolina Supreme Court contradict a 30-year trend of interpreting the state's Freedom of Information Act to enhance citizen access, a prominent media attorney said Thursday.

The state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that autopsy reports are not public records. It also ruled in June that governmental bodies could modify agendas without prior notice to the public.

"I don't think this is how democracy is designed to work," said Jay Bender, media attorney. "But there are plenty of people in South Carolina who find it inconvenient for the public to be involved in public business."

The Supreme Court ruled in June that public bodies in South Carolina such as city and county councils no longer have to publish agendas before their regular meetings, and can add to the list of items they plan to discuss or vote on any time during those meetings.

Then on Wednesday, the Supreme Court also ruled autopsies are medical records and fall under privacy provisions of the open records law. The ruling leaves little guidance on what, if anything, coroners can release to the public about suspicious deaths in their counties.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he respects the decisions of the justices. He added, however, that he intends to propose legislation addressing both issues during the upcoming legislative session.

"This highlights the need for us to redo the statute," Martin said. "It's one of those things that hadn't been challenged in that fashion and now we're going to have to go back and take a look at it."

Martin said he hopes to address the issue early in the session, so that it doesn't get lost when lawmakers get bogged down with other topics later on. He also wants to work on the statutes that specifically address the laws in question, and not get distracted with other FOIA issues, such as emails and phone records. The conversation might get lost, he said, if lawmakers start taking a broad look at the state's FOIA laws.

"I know there is wide opposition at the Senate on the issues of us turning over phone records, email records and correspondence to an FOIA request," Martin said. "My hope is that we can craft a bill that would be a narrow rifle shot that could deal with both of these issues."

Bender added there are organizations that will fight against open records and open meetings. But part of the problem is the culture surrounding FOIA laws by public officials, he said. Another issue is the public's lack of interest in government's actions.

"Unless it's your particular issue that's before a public body, most of us seem willing to accept whatever decisions are made," Bender said. "As long as we don't take an interest in what our government is doing, those people in positions of authority will exercise power for whatever purposes they see fit."

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.