Records related to the mental hospital incarceration of a serial killer who inspired the play and 1944 movie “Arsenic and Old Lace” don’t have to be made public, the state Supreme Court ruled in a decision released Monday.
The Associated Press reported that a majority of five justices ruled that documents were exempt from disclosure requirements. The ruling reversed a trial court, which had backed the state Freedom of Information Commission; they said Amy Archer Gilligan’s privacy rights ended with her death in 1962 and invasion of privacy is not an issue.
As AP noted, the Supreme Court justices cited a “broad veil of secrecy created by the psychiatrist-patient privilege” to bar the disclosure under state law.
On the one hand, we’re happy to know that our private matters are protected from prying eyes, at least while we are alive. The court’s majority decided that “each and every one of the documents at issue — whether psychiatric, medical, dental, administrative or otherwise — must be shielded from the public, basing its decision primarily on where the documents were created, with almost no regard for their content,” Justice Andrew J. McDonald wrote.
On the other hand, we’re concerned that this ruling may be a bar to historical research, even long after the person’s death. Historians have probed into the life and motives of everyone from the Founding Fathers to Adolph Hitler to shed light on the past. Even in this case, McDonald acknowledged an “enduring and legitimate public interest in the case of a notorious serial killer,”
Exploring that interest is author Ron Robillard, who in 2010 requested records about Gilligan’s years in the psychiatric hospital, where she was confined after poisoning a resident of her nursing home with arsenic. He said he sought the records because Gilligan’s perspective has not been told to the public.
(Full disclosure: Robillard is a friend of this newspaper and a former editor here.)
We think there ought to be a balance between these two viewpoints — perhaps a designated period of time after the death of the person in question, or of their immediate family until private truths can be disclosed.
But how can we forever shut the door on history?