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Does The Public Have A Right To Hear 911 Calls?

Does The Public Have A Right To Hear 911 Calls?

The argument over whether 911 calls should be confidential is being debated in the media throughout the United States. Currently, each state has its own statutes that dictate whether or not 911 emergency call recordings or transcripts can be released to the public. Some states, such as Maine, hold that names, addresses, telephone numbers and any medical information contained in 911 calls are confidential.

Other states, such as Minnesota, hold that transcripts are public record but audio recordings are private. Most states, such as Michigan, hold that 911 calls transcripts and audio recordings are public records.

Connecticut, one of the states where 911 calls are public record, has been debating the issue for over a year.

Flags Over Sandy Hook. Photo credit here.
Flags Over Sandy Hook. Photo credit here.

On December 14, 2012, emergency 911 calls were made from Sandy Hook Elementary School as 20 students and 6 employees were being shot to death. The state attorney fought media requests for release of the calls. Almost one year later, a Bridgeport Superior Court judge ruled that the state attorney had no legal standing under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act to keep the calls sealed.

The ruling held that the calls should be released because that is the law. The Newtown, CN police have indicated that they will comply with the judge’s order in the near future.

Over the course of the year that the calls from Sandy Hook were withheld from the public, debates raged over whether the recordings should be released or should be kept confidential. Those that opposed the release of the 911 calls indicated that the constitutional right to privacy of the individuals involved was more important than the public’s right to know. Opponents were concerned that there would be widespread distribution and abuse of the calls through social medias and that the surviving victims would be made to relive the event over and over again.

Those that believed that the 911 calls should be made public generally indicated that an individual’s right to privacy is trumped by the public’s need to monitor how well their public servants respond to emergency calls. The public wanted to hold the agency responsible for taking 911 calls accountable if problems were found with the way the calls were handled. They argued that, absent access to the 911 recordings, they would have no way to do that.

According to the First Amendment Center, several states including Alaska, Florida, New York, Tennessee and Wisconsin have legislation pending that would restrict the release of 911 call records and transcripts. While many people are still debating the issue, most individual states indicate, by an absence of legislation or new statutes, that they feel that the records should be available to the public.