Hickenlooper vetoes bill to limit public access to child autopsy reports, citing “societal benefits” of transparency

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke at the Colorado Water Congress annual convention on Jan. 25. Photo by John Herrick

Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed a proposed law Friday that would have limited public access to child autopsy reports in an effort to protect the privacy of families — a bill that passed the legislature with wide bipartisan support.

The bill was backed by county coroners who said the disclosure of reports that examine the cause of death of a child can unnecessarily invade the privacy of families and encourage copycat teen suicides.

Journalists and transparency advocates, however, argued that the autopsy reports help shed light on suspicious causes of death and child abuse at home and in the state’s child welfare system. The Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association opposed the bill.

“Transparency can lead to enhanced government protections, greater public and private resources, and heightened public understanding and demand for change,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper in the veto letter. He added, “An informed public has societal benefits for all at-risk children, present and future.”

Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, was among the opponents of the proposed law.

“Journalists have proven how valuable they can be to expose problems with the child welfare system and help the public understand what has happened when a child dies in a suspicious manner,” he told The Colorado Independent.

Currently, autopsy reports are specifically excluded from a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) provision that makes medical records confidential. If they are requested by a member of the public, including the media, a coroner must petition to court for a determination that the release of the information is not in the public interest and could cause some form of injury. 

The bill would have flipped this burden so that the person requesting these records would have to seek permission from a district court on the grounds that disclosure “constitutes a significant public benefit.”

The bill passed both chambers on the second-to-last day of the 2018 legislative session, clearing the House on a 63-2 vote and the Senate 34-1.

Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs who sponsored the bill, said he was disappointed to learn the governor vetoed the bill that he thought struck the right balance between transparency and privacy. He said he was mindful that these reports can serve the public interest.

“But overwhelmingly there seemed to be a belief by Coloradans that privacy for grieving families ought to trump unlimited public disclosure,” Gardner told The Colorado Independent.

He said he does not know if he will carry the bill next session. But, he said, the public and the next governor may have different views on transparency and privacy next year. 

“Striking the balance is interesting. Some of that is where is the community sense right now,” Gardner said. “Neither of those values that are competing right now are bad things. They are very good things.”

Hickenlooper also vetoed two other bills. One bill would have allowed out-of-state landowners to vote in Colorado elections, which he said was “poor public policy.” Another would have lowered the tax on non-cigarette tobacco products sold out of state, which Hickenlooper said would have led to negative health effects due to cheaper tobacco products with minimal economic gains. 

According to a story by 9NEWS, Hickenlooper has vetoed 17 bills since taking office in 2011.

For the remaining bills awaiting the governor’s signature, Hickenlooper has 30 days from the last day of the session — June 8 — to sign, veto or let them become law without his signature. One bill that remains to be signed would license marijuana tasting rooms. 

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke at the Colorado Water Congress annual convention on Jan. 25. Photo by John Herrick