AP Accesses Governor’s Inbox

Public Records request nets Vermont’s thoughts on same sex marriage

Last Wednesday, Jim Douglas, Vermont’s Republican governor, announced that he would veto a bill that would legalize same sex marriage if, as is expected, it passed the Democratic-controlled legislature.

“I just got thinking, ‘Whoa, it would be interesting to see what mail he’s getting,’” says John Curran, an Associated Press correspondent in Montpelier.

So on Thursday, Curran asked.

In a short e-mail to the governor’s press secretary, Curran cited Vermont’s Right to Know law, and asked for copies of all e-mail and written correspondence the governor’s office had received on the bill after the veto threat.

“I did it thinking, what the hell, I’ve got nothing to lose,’ says Curran.

While Curran figured he had the law on his side—“when someone sends a letter to the governor, it becomes a public record, as I understand it,” he says—he was surprised by the speed and character of the governor’s response: within hours, they’d invited him to come by the next day and take a look. How was, say, three o’clock?

“I went over there, and they had 1,500 of these stacked on a conference room desk,” remembers Curran. The governor’s staff had sorted the messages by the date they’d been received, and then sorted those into piles in favor of and opposed to the same-sex marriage bill. Most were printed e-mails, says Curran, but mixed in were “a couple of ones with little old lady handwriting on nice stationery.”

It was an interesting visualization of public opinion—almost a bar graph come to life, showing a decrease in comment after the announcement’s initial flurry of attention. “Like one of those Verizon ads,” quipped Curran.

After about forty-five minutes with the records, Curran had gathered enough excerpts to describe how Vermonters (and a few outsiders) felt about the bill, and about a debate echoing one the state had nearly a decade ago as it drafted its first-in-the-nation civil unions law.

“Being ahead of one’s time is what brought slavery and racial discrimination to an end … please support the Freedom to Marry bill,” said one.

“Your stance is reasonable and not unkind,” read another. “It must have been a difficult political decision, but right nonetheless. There are many Vermonters who are with you, but simply don’t how to articulate it. Hold firm!”

“In the Associated Press, we’re encouraged to use the FOI laws all the time, but generally for harder news than this,” says Curran, adding that the request turned out to be a good way to hear “regular folk talking on what had been dominated by official spokespersons on both sides.”

Curran says the governor’s office placed no restrictions on his usage of the letters, and left the writers’ names unredacted. But Curran, mindful that the letter writers probably never anticipated that their comments and names would be sent around the world on the AP’s wire, chose not to identify them. “Vermont’s a pretty small place, and the ability to burn bridges is there … I didn’t want to accidentally out somebody.”

“I felt like the substance of it was what was so important, more than the names,” says Curran. “How easy it was also chilled me… I kind of thought to myself that people would see the article and say, ‘Oh, I can do this myself.’ And next time I’ll have fifty people to compete with there.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.