SECRETARY OF STATE WILLIAM GALVIN’S OFFICE has ruled that the Foxborough Police Department acted properly in denying on privacy grounds a public records request for a surveillance video of New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones.
The 6-foot-5-inch, 265-pound lineman showed up shirtless in the parking lot of the Foxborough police station on the morning of January 10 seeking help. Media reports suggested Jones may have been under the influence of “synthetic marijuana.” Police officials released written reports on the incident, but redacted some portions to comply with medical privacy laws and the state’s Public Records Law.
The Boston Herald and New England Cable News filed public records requests for police video of the incident in January, but those were rejected on privacy grounds. The media outlets appealed Foxborough’s decision to Galvin’s office later that same month, and their appeals were denied this month.
“Disclosure of the responsive video recording would result in embarrassment to an individual of normal sensibilities,” wrote Shawn Williams, Galvin’s supervisor of public records. “I find [Jones’s] privacy interest in this matter outweighs the public’s interest in disclosure.”
There are 18 exemptions written into the Public Records Law and about 75 more scattered through Massachusetts general laws. The privacy exemption states that public officials can withhold documents relating to a “specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The privacy exemption is clearly subjective in nature, with court rulings holding that its application requires a balancing of the public’s right to know with the relevant privacy interest at stake. Determinations are made on a case-by-case basis.
The privacy exemption does not shield all records related to a specifically named individual. Rather, it permits officials to withhold “intimate details of a highly personal nature.” Examples of the types of personal information that can be withheld are marital status, medical condition, paternity, substance abuse, government assistance, and family disputes, according to court rulings.
Foxborough town officials argued that release of the video would “unduly encroach upon the privacy rights or interests of an individual who voluntarily came to the [police station] seeking medical assistance.” They also asserted that the release of the video would add nothing to the previously released written reports of the incident.
Some news outlets were skeptical about Foxborough’s handling of the Jones incident because town police officers handle lucrative detail work at all Patriots games.
Media attorney Robert Ambrogi, who also serves as executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said the decision by Galvin’s office interprets the privacy exemption way too broadly.
“The fact that someone might be embarrassed by a record is not a reason to withhold it,” he said in a statement. “To the contrary, that is sometimes exactly why it should be made public.”
Robert Bertsche, another media attorney, said “the privacy exemption is intended to protect against the disclosure of intimate details of a highly personal nature, where there is an insufficient countervailing public interest. The supervisor seems to equate it with embarrassment. That is a troubling interpretation of our already weak Public Records Law.”