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Our Opinion: Judge’s transparency push supports rewrite of police body cam law

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THUMBS UP to Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell, who sent a powerful message about the public’s right to know when she ordered police to release the full contents of body camera video that captured a fatal police shooting.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police had released a 2-minute, 20-second clip of a video that runs for more than 11 minutes. The footage shows Officer Wende Kerl shooting Danquirs Franklin outside a Burger King last month. The shooting is under investigation, which is standard protocol when law enforcement officers use deadly force.

Bell ruled Tuesday that police should have released the video in its entirety. Assistant City Attorney Jessica Battle said the city determined only the 2-minute portion was relevant to the petition requesting the video’s release, but the judge wasn’t persuaded. Bell even said she’d consider holding the police department in contempt, according to The Charlotte Observer.

“The law does not give police the ability to determine what is relevant,” said attorney Mike Tadych, who represents WBTV, one of the plaintiffs who sought the video’s release.

While police should have been more forthcoming, we lay the blame squarely at state lawmakers’ feet. The General Assembly passed a 2016 law exempting police footage from the N.C. Public Records Act and establishing the judicial petition process to seek law enforcement body camera and dashboard camera recordings.

As we’ve said in this space before, the secrecy law sets a high hurdle for taxpayers who wish to monitor their public servants. Judges are increasingly siding with petitioners, showing that they believe disclosure of police video to be in the public interest.

North Carolina law has it backward. Video should be presumed public and police should have to petition judges if there’s a legitimate reason to withhold it. We call on our state legislators to side with transparency and fix this mistake.

THUMBS DOWN to a well-meaning U.S. Senate bill that seeks to discourage anti-Semitism but could lead colleges and universities to violate students’ free speech rights.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has come out against Senate Bill 852, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019. The legislation would direct the U.S. Department of Education to use a nebulous definition of anti-Semitism to determine whether a civil rights violation has been committed.

The definition “was intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe,” its primary author, Ken Sterns, wrote in The New York Times. “It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.”

FIRE, a nonpartisan group that defends expressive rights in higher education, says the bill could result in discipline for students and professors who criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or U.S. support for the Israeli government.

“However well-intentioned the legislation may be, it remains deeply flawed and a threat to the First Amendment,” the foundation’s Joe Cohn writes.

Criticism of Israel or the expression of controversial views on Middle East public policy issues doesn’t constitute discrimination. If a federal law suggests otherwise, college officials will be wedged between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose between violating federal civil rights law or trampling the First Amendment, both of which are unlawful. That’s a lose-lose proposition.

THUMBS UP to the Argus Leader newspaper of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, whose eight-year quest for information on the federal government’s payments to supermarkets and grocery marts for participation in the food stamp program has led to an open government case now before the Supreme Court.

Argus Leader reporters filed Freedom of Information Act requests in 2010 to identify potential fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but the Associated Press reports that officials withheld data on food stamp reimbursements to individual stores.

“Taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going,” Megan Luther, a former Argus Leader reporter who now works for InvestigateTV, told the AP.

The Food Marketing Institute, a trade group representing supermarkets, says individual stores’ food stamp sales data should be confidential.

We support transparency in government spending, and if stores aren’t comfortable with payment figures being publicly disclosed, perhaps they should opt out of the food stamp program. Participation, after all, is voluntary.

Supreme Court justices will have the last word. Chief Justice John Roberts’ court has a solid record on First Amendment issues, and as access to government records in the public’s interest is a linchpin of freedom of the press, the high court must reward the Argus Leader’s persistence and order the sales data released.

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