Freedom of information could be snatched away

Sunshine Week

The Public's Right To Know

March 12, 2006|By CHARLES N. DAVIS

The phone rings, again.

On the line is a citizen from North Carolina, or a journalist from Indiana, or a college student from Oklahoma. The names and places don't really matter; in the course of a year, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and its 40 member state groups will receive hundreds of similar calls.

The callers want government information, and they need our help. For so many of them, the episodic battles against governmental secrecy mean nothing; they simply want the information they need to monitor their school board, or their planning and zoning officials, or their police department. This often is the first time they have ever even heard the term "public record" or "sunshine law."

That's why the stakes are so high.

For these citizens, freedom of information often is an all-or-nothing, one-time-only deal. If they are denied the information they seek, when the public records law says otherwise, all of their preconceived cynicism about government being of and for the high rollers is instantly confirmed. So close to becoming informed, engaged citizens, they instead mumble to themselves about how they knew what was coming, before heading back to their dissociation.

It's worth remembering, during Sunshine Week, which begins today, that access to information is not enshrined in the Constitution. You won't find it in the Bill of Rights, either. It's a statutory right, which means that the people, through their elected representatives, exercised their collective political will and created the right of access to information.

That means, quite simply, that what the people have created can easily be swept away. Access to governmental information is only as strong as the collective political will of the electorate.

The past few years have seen an unprecedented retreat from the bipartisan spirit of transparency in Washington, as secrecy too often becomes another partisan issue, akin to taxes or the war in Iraq, which it most certainly is not. Governments come and go, but the damage done to the accountability produced through access gains a certain inertia, and what is done is not so easily undone.

Thus far, state governments have, for the most part, resisted the knee-jerk secrecy of the Capital Beltway. That might reflect the proximity of state officials to their constituency; it also might reflect greater respect for access among state-level politicians, who know full well the damage wrought in secret meetings, and in classified dossiers, to the public interest. It also might have something to do with the emergence of state freedom of information coalitions, which unite citizens, journalists and activists of all stripes, providing a collective voice for the will of the people.

I'm reminded of a story I saw recently about potential open government reforms in Tennessee, where a relatively young coalition is making itself heard in the halls of the state house, reeling from a four-week special legislative session called in response to shaken public confidence following an FBI sting complete with undercover agents posing as lobbyists.

Doug Goddard, executive director of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, greeted the reforms, utterly reasonable in scope, with the usual aplomb of those protecting people in power.

"You're just going to have nuts out there who want to burden local governments," he said.

Nuts. That pretty well sums it up. Those of you who think government works for us - who believe that transparency ushers in less corruption, more representative legislation, maybe fewer FBI agents - are nuts.

I'm picking one isolated example, sure. But government, at every level, prefers the efficiency and collegiality of secrecy. To many in the business of being public servants, involving the public is a "burden."

That does make me nuts.

Charles N. Davis is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where he also is an associate professor. This article was made available through sunshineweek.org.

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