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UTMB offers another draft of biolab bill

By Michael A. Smith — Galveston County Daily News, May 16, 2009

Galveston City Council deserves credit for pushing University of Texas Medical Branch officials toward compromise on Senate Bill 2556, which would sharply restrict public access to information about the operation of biolabs like the one on the island.

It remains to be seen, however, whether that commitment will survive a trip from the council chamber to the state capitol.

Neither supporters at the medical branch nor state Sen. Joan Huffman, who introduced the bill, had been willing to talk compromise until faced Thursday with a council resolution of outright opposition.

Now they seem to be, and that's good, but a question remains about whether compromise is possible.

Most of the problem is that supporters, including the bill's own author, can't or won't say what exactly the proposed change is meant to achieve.

That's still true of the language in compromise legislation put up for public review at a meeting Friday.

From the start, supporters have argued the bill is very precise and limited in scope, as if the rest of us couldn't comprehend such common English prose as "information pertaining to" and "is exempt" from disclosure.

Thursday, as the city council attempted in its resolution to offer language narrowing the bill's effect, medical branch president Dr. David Callender warned that it needed to be broad enough to cover "creative" requests for information.

That was an admission the bill is, was designed to be, what critics have argued all along too broad.

At least now we can all appear to be arguing about the same legislation.

As best we can tell, however, creative requests are any the medical branch deems to be troublesome in any of several broad ways at any given time.

It's going to be hard to write a bill achieving that without gutting the public's right to information, because such a bill would have to be very broad.

Laws honestly seeking a fair accommodation among valid competing interests must by definition be specific.

Pressed for specificity, however, supporters' arguments become like a man trying to cover a large body with a small sheet.

They tug this corner; they tug that corner. Each tug conceals one unseemly patch of flesh but reveals another.

Callender argued Thursday, as others had argued before, that the change was needed to protect security devices and methods. But those already are explicitly and broadly exempted under state law.

Supporters claim they need to align the state law with the federal law. But the state law already exempts anything exempted under federal law.

Supporters say they want to protect the privacy of researchers. When we pointed out that researchers already were well-known and publish under their own names, the rationale became protecting the identities of janitors and laboratory technicians.

It's interesting, as an aside, that the bill at hand doesn't mention exempting records about janitors or other support-level employees, but instead says the "identity of an individual authorized to possess, use or access a select agent," is exempt. We hope the pool of janitors possessing, accessing or using Ebola and anthrax is rather small.

To reach a compromise, supporters will have to do two things:

  • Stop the fear mongering about "door access codes" and truck routes that nobody has asked for and couldn't get if they did; and
  • Stop the bobbing and weaving and be honest about what they're after with this change in a law that is clearly important to people all over this state.

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