Last week, March 11-17, was known in journalistic and (some) governmental circles as “Sunshine Week” — a tribute to notions of open government, and a call to action to make it more so. Freedom of information was on tap in all kinds of ways.
But now that the official celebration is over, I want to remind folks that there are 52 weeks in the year. And the need to pursue open government is just as vital today as it was during the past seven days.
“Freedom of information” is not just a phrase. It is a pillar of an open and free society.
Nowhere has that pillar been more solid than in the United States. Congress and most state legislatures have enacted laws designed to keep governments more honest by opening up the information flow.
A key point about the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and various state “open records” laws: They are not designed solely for journalists, although that is the popular mythology, sometimes encouraged by professional journalists. They are for everyone, not any special profession or group of people.
Indeed, the uses of open-records laws vary widely. Among others: Lawyers file requests for information on behalf of corporate and other clients. Interest groups file to pry loose information of various kinds. Journalists file requests so they can cover the way governments do the people’s business. And average folks file requests to learn about governmental activities that escape the notice of the traditional media.
So is the battle won against government secrecy? Not by a long shot. Many in government work constantly to restrict information, sometimes for sound policy reasons but, as history shows, more often to bury their mistakes and misdeeds.
When recalcitrant record-keepers face open-records laws, they employ a variety of tactics, such as stalling and outright obstruction, to prevent us from getting the information to which we are entitled. Unfortunately, there are few sanctions in federal law and many state laws to deter such behavior.
The FOIA was first enacted in 1966. It has been amended several times, and Congress is now looking at a major — and welcome — overhaul to strengthen its provisions.
Many organizations have created excellent guides to the FOIA and state laws. Here are some links to the best such resources:
Freedom of Information portal, Society of Professional Journalists
First Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University
Freedom of Information Center, University of Missouri.
Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, Public Citizen advocacy group
FOIA information, National Security Archive
National Freedom of Information Coalition
How to Use the Federal FOI Act, Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press