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Bad bill not dead yet

“No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

So said a New York Surrogate, Gideon J. Tucker, in an opinion in an 1866 case. Or, at least, that’s who gets the credit for having said it.1

And nowhere is that clearer than right now, in Oklahoma.

OklaHSThis is a state that already has some of the worst laws on access to records that you can imagine. Right now, on the books in the Sooner State, is a law that says the only person who’s entitled to get a copy of a death certificate from Oklahoma is —

Ready for this?

— the dead person.

Seriously.

The law makes it “unlawful for any person to permit inspection of, or to disclose information contained in, vital statistics records… to copy or issue a copy of all or part of any such record except to the person who is the subject of the record…” unless there’s a court order.2

There’s a bill going through the Legislature this year that may help with that: it would make birth and death certificates available to the public, but not for a very long time. Death certificates wouldn’t be available for 75 years and birth certificates for 125 years.3 But at least there will be some entitlement for those of us who descend from folks who were born or died in Oklahoma. At least eventually…

But this isn’t a post about that bill. This is a post about another bill. A bill that many people think is dead in this legislative session. But a bill that could be resurrected, even on the last day of the session.

And it’s a terrible bill for those committed to Oklahoma history.

For 120 years, the Oklahoma Historical Society has been the leading light in preserving and protecting the history of this piece of the American frontier. It began as an effort by newspaper editors to collect and preserve the papers they had published. It became “a statewide educational institution with a budget of $6.5 million, 150 employees, 39 staffed historic sites and museums, and nationally recognized research, publication, and preservation programs.”4

In a word, the Oklahoma Historical Society is fabulous.

Independent, dedicated, committed to Oklahoma’s rich history and to making information about that history easily and readily available. The curator and caretaker of genealogical resources that can only be described as stunning. Supported by some tax dollars, yes, but also by 10,000 dues-paying members. Run by an independent board of directors who need to answer to no politicians with their shifting agendas.

And it’s that last point that — at this moment — is still at risk.

Because, you see, the politicians in Oklahoma don’t like the idea of a major resource like this not being under the thumb of — you guessed it — the politicians. Governor Mary Fallin wants the Oklahoma Historical Society as an independent body dismantled, and its assets turned over to the Department of Tourism.5

A bill to do just that — to consolidate the Oklahoma Historical Society, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the Oklahoma Arts Council into a great big Department of Tourism, History and Cultural Affairs — squeaked through a legislative committee a little more than two weeks ago.6

Now I have no trouble with the idea of genealogical tourism, and Oklahoma does a good job with that.

But I have a lot of trouble with taking an agency that works — that is totally committed to historical preservation — that is staffed by professionals at every level — that has been totally apolitical since the day it was founded — and handing it over to an agency headed by a political appointee whose position is only as stable as the political winds allow.

I have a lot of trouble with taking the assets of an agency dedicated solely to preserving our history7 — and even an endowment fund intended solely for historical preservation — and handing them over to a political appointee.

I have a lot of trouble with taking 10,000 citizen-historians out of the picture — with essentially telling them they’re not wanted and they have no say in their own history — and with making the independent board of directors nothing more than an advisory body with no authority to keep Oklahoma history independent of Oklahoma politics.

And I have a lot of trouble with combining missions the way this bill does.

• Because I know, and you know, that if it ever came down to a question of using resources that might have gone to historical preservation and dedicating them to, say, bringing in a sports game, it isn’t history that will win.

• And because I know, and you know, and — quite frankly — I’m sure Governor Fallin knows, that when someone’s modern political agenda isn’t consistent with what the historical record shows, it isn’t going to be history that wins out.

I have a lot of trouble with fixing something that isn’t broke.

“But,” you might say, “you said this is a bill that looks like it’s dead. Why are you worried?”

Because, as Surrogate Tucker warned, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

And right up until the very last day of this legislative session, this proposal to abolish the Oklahoma Historical Society in favor of some consolidated politically-charged department could still be tacked on to another bill in an attempt to have it fly by under the radar.

So if you have Oklahoma roots, if you just care about history independent of politics, please educate yourself on this issue. I’ve taken the liberty of posting the latest issue of the Society’s member newsletter, Mistletoe Leaves, here on my own website so you can read it for yourself and see what this is all about. (It’s a PDF file.)

And then please consider contacting an appropriate member of the Oklahoma Legislature to let these folks know we are watching — and that we vote. Those of us from Oklahoma, at the ballot box. Those of us who live elsewhere, with those tourist dollars they seem to want so badly.

Information about members of the Oklahoma Senate can be found here and about members of the House here.

“Eternal vigilance,” it is said, “is the price of liberty.”8 Please join me in being vigilant against this threat to historical freedom in Oklahoma.


SOURCES

  1. Final Accounting in the Estate of A.B., 1 Tucker 248 (N.Y. Surr. 1866), according to Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Gideon J. Tucker,” rev. 18 Nov 2013.
  2. 63 O.S. § 1-323 (as amended 2011), in Oklahoma Statutes, Title 63, Public Health and Safety, Oklahoma Legislature website (http://www.oklegislature.gov : accessed 17 Mar 2014). In fairness, there is a clause that says information can be released “in such person’s interest” — whatever that means — and the Oklahoma Health Department has tried to be as liberal in interpreting that as it can be.
  3. Oklahoma Senate Bill SB1448, as passed by the Oklahoma Senate, 3 Mar 2014; Oklahoma Legislature website (http://www.oklegislature.gov : accessed 17 Mar 2014).
  4. Bob L. Blackburn,
    Battle Cry for History: The First Century of the Oklahoma Historical Society,” About : History, Oklahoma Historical Society (http://www.okhistory.org/ : accessed 17 Mar 2014).
  5. See “Governor Mary Fallin Comments on Consolidation Bill Advancing,” The Okie Blaze, posted 1 Mar 2014 (http://theokieblaze.com/ : accessed 17 Mar 2014).
  6. Ibid. See, also, “Oklahoma House Bill 3028,” LegiScan (http://legiscan.com/ : accessed 17 Mar 2014).
  7. And I most definitely mean to include myself when I say our history. My great grandfather was an Oklahoma resident before there was an Oklahoma, my grandmother grew up there, I have doizens of cousins who were born there.
  8. Not, however, by Thomas Jefferson. See Anna Berkes, “Eternal Vigilance,” A Summary View (blog of the Jefferson Library), posted 23 August 2010 (http://jeffersonlibrary.wordpress.com/ : accessed 17 Mar 2014).
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