Colorado press associations ask governor to say no to bill that prevents access to child autopsy reports

DENVER (KKTV) - Colorado journalists are contesting a controversial Senate bill that, if passed, would restrict public access to autopsy reports on minors.

Currently, autopsies are considered an open record in Colorado. Senate Bill 223, which easily passed in the state Senate, would change that.

Three journalists associations at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC) have written a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper imploring him to veto the bill.

"The cost to our society from losing access to information that sheds light on a wide variety of government offices greatly outweighs the bill’s marginal (if any benefit) to the public," wrote the CFOIC.

Under the prospective law, autopsy results for people under 18 would become confidential, available only to families, government-sanctioned review boards, organ donation groups and civil or criminal lawyers with a direct involvement.

The bill's backers say it would prevent copycat suicides among Colorado's youth.

"Basically, they don't want the stories of teen suicides to get out there in the public, that's what the coroners' concerns are," said Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, one of the bill's sponsors.

Liz Haltiwanger, the president of the Colorado Press Association and the news director at 11 News, says there is no clear evidence that this is currently a problem.

The bill "appears to have been introduced to solve a problem brought forth by coroners that I’m not convinced is actually happening," Haltiwanger wrote to Hickenlooper. "... I’ve yet to see a news story, a blog, or even an individual social media post that described a Colorado autopsy with sufficient detail to help other teens mimic the behavior. In fact, news organizations generally refrain from even reporting on suicides."

Haltiwanger said most details in suicides tend to come from family online or friends spreading rumors, not the autopsy reports.

CFOIC contested that coroners failed to present any evidence during legislative hearings that " disclosure of juvenile autopsy reports encourages other children to commit suicide, nor did they show any examples of autopsy reports being irresponsibility published."

The executive director of CFOIC, in an interview with website ColoradoPolitics.com, said there are valid reasons for journalists to have access to minor autopsy reports.

"State lawmakers should also consider the fact that autopsy records can speak for children who have died under nefarious or otherwise questionable circumstances. They have been used, for instance, to help hold the child welfare system accountable for the deaths of children who were abused. They have helped the public understand what exactly happened after a controversial police shooting of a juvenile.

"In general, public access to autopsy reports is necessary to hold coroners and other public servants accountable for the jobs they do."

If the law were to pass, journalists would be permitted to petition a district court for access to an autopsy report, which can be costly and time-consuming.

Hickenlooper said last week that he had not read the bill yet.