Category Archives: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Freedom of Information Day 2017 – An unprecedented challenge

It strikes me that it is more than appropriate that Sunshine Week, March 12-18, 2017, begins on the first day of Daylight Savings Time!  Maybe an extra hour of sunshine will actually help!  One can hope.

I have written so often about open government, transparency, the right to know, the First Amendment and the free press that I mention just one recent blog post that perhaps best expresses my deep concerns about the crisis in which we find ourselves. https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/information-and-media-not-weapons-but-tools/  

As citizens of a threatened democracy we need to think more than ever about our rights, the role of the press, and our need to discern truth in an incredible barrage of data, misinformation, fake facts, propaganda and, happily, thoughtful exposition of ideas, issues and facts.  We can’t give up.  

Nationally, the week is sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.  The SW website offers an excellent introduction to the principles, the issues, a valuable Tookkit for local activists including a calendar of what’s happening around the nation. It’s an essential starting point and inspiration to take action.  All is revealed through multiple channels, including #Sunshineweek@asne.org, and on Facebook.

For many years the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) has commemorated Sunshine Week by sponsoring a Freedom of Information Day event. The history of FOIA Day (March 16) respects the birthday of James Madison, author of the First Amendment.  And so each year MNCOGI hosts a Freedom of Information Day public event.  This year’s event is set for Thursday, March 16, Noon at the Minneapolis Central Library.

Keynote speaker at FOI recognition is Patrice McDermott, founder and long-time director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a DC-based coalition of organizations that endorse government accountability and access.  Her talk is entitled “Secrecy and Accountability – Looking Forward, Looking Back.”  Member of the National Freedom Act Hall of Fame Dr. McDermott is a national authority on the principles and challenges to the right of the people to access to information by and about the government.  

At the same gathering the Coalition will honor Tony Webster, recipient of this year’s John R Finnegan FOI Award.  Webster  is a self-proclaimed “web engineer, public records researcher, and policy nerd”. (@webster)  MNCOGI chair Gary Hill observes that “Tony Webster is a shining example of the power of a single individual to make government more transparent and hold it more accountable.”   

Sponsored each year by the Coalition, the Finnegan Award honors Minnesota newspaperman John R. Finnegan, installed in 2011 as a member of the Freedom of Information Hall of Fame (http://www.nfoic.org/2011-open-government-hall-fame)

(https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2012/10/eulogies-john-finnegan-sr)

The FOI Day event is free and open to the public.

Related updates:

A powerful statement of press freedom endorsed by a broad coalition of agencies:  http://ncac.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Press-Freedom-Statement-FINAL.pdf

Recipient of the James Madison Award, sponsored by the American Library Association Washington Office, is Jon Tester (D-MT).  The award will be presented at one of the main events of Sunshine Week, a gathering at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, March 15 – streamed live from the Knight TV Studio in the Newseum.  http://www.newseum.org/live/)

DataRescue TC’s – Call to Action!!!

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. ― George Orwell1984

With the help of a host of friends the federally produced datasets housed at the University of Minnesota Libraries will escape this Orwellian fate. The University Libraries have issued a resounding call for researches, tech-savvy coders, archivists, librarians, and “passionate community members” to share their time, skills and commitment to access as participants in the crisis-dictated DataRescue-Twin Cities project.

The goal of DataRescue-Twin Cities is to “capture and archive” the immensely valuable and irreplaceable data housed at the U of M Libraries. It’s one of many institutions participating in a vigorous national initiative now activated on university campuses, in government agencies, anywhere that the people’s data are threatened by unprecedented policies that fly in the face of science, open government and people’s right to know.

Emphasis of the call to action is on volunteers’ willingness to help rather than on sophisticated skills. Volunteers will find the job that fits from a range of options including Seeding and Sorting, Researchers/Harvesters, Checkers, Baggers, and Toolbuilders. The “position descriptions” are spelled out in detail in the call to action.

There’s much more information re job descriptions on the U of M website:

http://www.continuum.umn.edu/event/datarescue/2017-02-24/#.WK3stBIrKpg

DataRescue-Twin Cities Details:

Dates:         Friday, February 24, 1:00 – 6:00 p.m.S

Saturday, February 25, 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Site:             Humphrey School of Public Affairs, 50B

RSVP to the event on Facebook!

Questions? Email datarescuetc@umn.edu

Advocates resist restraints, misuse of government information

Clearly, the challenge facing this nation will challenge most Americans in one way or another. It helps to focus – and to assess individual and societal resources within our reach. As past blog posts suggest, my tools of choice lean toward real facts, the truth and, above all, informed citizens “armed” with the tools (weapons?) of access and critical thinking tools to weigh the overwhelming flood of facts and alternative facts by and about the government.

Good information has a real advantage when it comes to weaponry – it’s agile, abundant and, as I often quote, Harlan Cleveland’s contention that “it’s better if shared.”

No wonder then, that the Commander-in-Chief is quick to grasp the potential of information and its manipulation — misinformation, disinformation, and, most recently, depriving Americans of information collected and analyzed at public expense.

We the public are at the ready to fight fire with fire, alternative facts with legitimate data, mindless tweets with authenticity, bluster with honest truth.   Seekers of truth are eager to share truth with citizen stakeholders who possess both the skills and technology to learn, assess, share and act on good and relevant information by and about the federal government.

Clearly, we have a long way to go – and yet at this juncture many Americans are keenly aware that information matters and that we have the people and the organizational power to act. Leaders of efforts to assure truth in government, transparency and accountability share a commitment to shape a powerful strategy built on truth, not trickery.

The founding fathers affirmed that the fundamental principle of this democracy is information, presumably in the hands and minds of citizens for whom government information is a mighty tool – until access is denied – or until the information tool is weaponized. That’s where we are now. https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/information-and-media-not-weapons-but-tools/

The weaponization of the peoples’ information has clearly caught the attention of the public and of those advocacy groups that have galvanized their efforts to collaborate and “resist.” The most overt of action is the forthcoming March for Science, a public expression of resistance set for Earth Day, April 29. Plans for the March are also underway. – some recent updates: http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/01/politics/science-march-earth-day-trnd/\

For a half century the most powerful tool in the hands of open government access proponents has been the Freedom of Information Act. More about FOIA here https://www.foia.gov/faq.html. Follow the FOIA website here: http://thefoiablog.typepad.com

Countless advocacy groups, including numerous coalitions, are “armed for action.”

These are just a very few of the insider entities at the forefront of truth-finding:

Muckrock suggests an action plan – https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2017/jan/04/how-we-can-all-work-towards-better-foia-process-20/ [note: if you have problems with this link, google the title]

http://www.openthegovernment.org/node/5414 – offers timely updates and an excellent list of coalition members that share a commitment to open government..

Federal News Radio provides just one of countless descriptions of the backlash to presidential halts to the free flow of federal government information – in this case the news is geared to inside the Beltway audience. http://federalnewsradio.com/

A couple of recent “Poking” posts underscore and elaborate the centrality of an challenges to an informed electorate:

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/category/access-to-information-2/freedom-of-information-act-foia/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2016/03/07/inquiring-minds-need-to-know-thoughts-on-sunshine-week-2016/

 In a Time of Universal Deceit Telling the Truth

Is a Revolutionary  Act ~ Source not certain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The truth remains — the fault lies in ourselves

“I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible […] The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost.” Albert Einstein

Fake news is not a fad. Fake facts are pernicious seeds planted with malicious care in the fertile minds of individuals ill-equipped to resist the implicit threat.

Individually and institutionally – I would argue in the latter case it’s intentionally – we have neither the skills nor the will to make the effort to examine the facts behind the facade. We have enabled ourselves and our society to become pawns, preyed upon in a game in which we are payers but not players.

Right now we are in a quick fix mode – eager to leave it to others – e.g. Mark Zuckerberg and his tribe – to label, limit, post warning signs or otherwise save us from ourselves. In other words, to put the fox in charge of the chicken coop, or the decider-in-chief the host of the technology titans.

As usual, Shakespeare got it right: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves.”

Pope Francis picked up on Shakespeare’s thought with his observation that spreading fake news is a sin… http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2016/1208/Why-Pope-Francis-says-fake-news-is-a-sin

Misinformation and disinformation have always lurked on the fringes of fact. Stephen Colbert called it “truthiness.”  Technology spreads the virus. Finances raise fake disinformation to an art, packaging the prevarications in irresistible 140 character snippets, almost authentic press releases, and bulletin bursts designed to capture the press, the untrained newsy or the digital gossip. So now the word of the year is “post-truth.” (I would have called that a phrase.)

And still, we point the public finger at fake news – the pernicious power, the packaging, the source of the lies. We ignore the fact that the fault lies not only in the intentional lies but in ourselves.

Public awareness offers us an unprecedented opportunity to grapple with the reality that we as citizens of a democracy share the civic and moral imperative to hone –and pass on — the skills and habits essential to this information age.

The time is now to focus on the missing link* in the information chain – The starting point has to be our admission that “the fault lies not with the stars but in ourselves.”

* See earlier post: https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/information-literacy-universal-challenge-of-the-digital-era/

 

 

 

Sharing and exercising the inalienable right to know!

It was just a few days – and an eon – ago that my-post-in-progress focused on President Obama’s signing of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. Passage of the FOIA Improvement Act represents the work of advocacy groups, activist members of Congress, and a concerted effort on the part of members of the press, civil libertarians, good government groups and informed citizens to overcome corporate and other resistance to updating the fifty-year-old legislation.

The President’s signature on June 30 gives cause to celebrate the people’s right to know. That moment was lost in 4th of July pyrotechnics and, sadly, in racial tensions that boiled over in the past few days. As the nation reels from the events in Dallas, Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge, thoughts of FOIA and the urge to celebrate move to the back burner. The right to know is lost in the mix as an edgy citizenry focuses on the right to bear arms to the exclusion of thoughts of the inalienable right to know. Transparency and the fine points of open government seem esoteric, remote, irrelevant.

And yet, the more I consider our plight the more I realize that the right to know is at the very core of our effort to sort things out. I remind myself of the wise words of Christopher Dodd who underscored the fact that “When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.”

How do we know what’s happening around us? We are challenged to think about how we know what we know, who and what determine what we know, who/what are the gatekeepers, what is the role of the media? How do social media challenge the norms, the filters, and the control of the communications media? Who owns and thus controls the channels of communication? Are unfettered exchanges of ignorance and opinion on social media enough to sustain an informed democracy? How do we judge our government – local, state and national – in terms of transparency and accountability to the body politic?

The focus of FOIA is on access to information by and about the government. For many that suggests information related to national security, certainly a prime concern. Still it’s the tip of a complex information infrastructure that is more subtle, more nuanced – information about what’s killing the bees, who’s monitoring the transport of hazardous oil through our cities, why are we plagued with opioids, do GMO’s matter? And what’s all this about climate change?

Access to accurate, unbiased, timely, useful and usable information by and about the government is a fundamental right that is implicit in every aspect of our lives. The right to know is a grounding principle upon which all Americans can agree – if we think about it. The FOIA Improvement Act is a key piece of a complex challenge that faces all of us. It involves trust in government, skills of access, a free press that endorses bold investigative reporting, access to technology, and a shared presumption that every American has the right to know.

These are times that demand that we all take a deep breath to learn about and reflect on basics, including the fundamental right to know. It’s not headline-grabbing stuff, but the right to know is uniquely American. It is a shared right, one that is not and cannot be reserved to the “elites.” It is a shared right that is uniquely deserving of public attention:

The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people. ~ Louis D. Brandeis

Sunshine Week 2016 – A heritage of openness and challenge to take a lead

Sunshine Week 2016 (March 13-19) spurs more than the usual reflection this year.  Over the years I’ve written countless words about the idea of the people’s right to know – this year seems like a chance to think more than write. The mass confusion in which this democracy is embroiled seems too often at odds with the informed democracy our forefathers envisioned.

The recent death of Martin Olav Sabo brings back thoughts of Minnesota’s open government heritage of which he was a powerful and visionary leader for many decades. Just today I received an email from Mike McIntee, long-time leader of The UpTake. Mike suggests that reflections on Sabo’s legacy will be inspired by this video which The UpTake produced almost a decade ago. I agree. I watched and remembered. http://theuptake.org/2016/03/13/longtime-minnesota-congressman-martin-sabo-dies-at-78/

The beautiful video he shared gives me pause and hope. I’m thinking  others might have the same reaction. It’s an oral history of the Minnesota Legislature as members have worked across the aisle to think through the issues and do the good work of governing our state. I hope you will enjoy this as much as I have. Viewing and thinking about the ideas shared here seem an appropriate tribute to Martin Olav Sabo – and the best possible way to celebrate Sunshine Week.

A good news note is that Mike McIntee and The UpTake are being honored as recipient of this year’s John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award sponsored by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information. The award will be presented at their Sunshine Week event on Wednesday, March 16, Noon at the Minneapolis Central Library. The work of The UpTake (http://theuptake.org) is under-recognized; my hope is that this overdue recognition helps Minnesotans understand the power and influence of this unique and powerful resource.

On a contemporary note, Star Tribune columnist James Shiffer offers a great list of FOI issues that need tending to by today’s Minnesotans. Find today’s Sunshine Week column here: http://startribune.com/on-sunshine-week-how-we-can-brighten-our-public-life/371887941/.  Emphasis for Sunshine Week 2016 is on passage of and improvement of the Freedom of Information Act, signed on July 4, 1996 by LBJ;  the roots of that monumental legislation are evident in the initiatives of progressive Minnesota legislators, including Martin Olav Sabo. Minnesotans  need to be engaged in adapting that 50 year old legislation to the reality of the day.  We need to think as Sabo did about the public good and the future of the democracy.

Inquiring Minds NEED to Know – Thoughts on Sunshine Week 2016

The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people.  Justice Hugo Black 1886-1971 

“The mark of a truly civilized man is confidence in the strength and security derived from the inquiring mind.       Justice Felix Frankfurter 1882-1965

 These words of two Justices who served similar eras on the United States Supreme Court form the bookends of this post. They frame my “thoughts while thinking” about next week, March13-19, celebrated throughout the nation as Sunshine Week 2016.

Focus of the eleventh annual recognition of Sunshine Week reflects Justice Black’s emphasis on a free press. In this construct, government is the source and a free press is the necessary medium of access to information by and about our government. Traditionally, these essentials have been the emphasis of Sunshine Week, principles that have shaped my annual Sunshine Week thoughts and posts.

This year, for a mix of reasons, my thoughts keep turning to Frankfurter’s reference to the other essential, the inquiring mind. (I find consolation for my oversight in the fact that Frankfurter also observed that “wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late…”)

To give credit, it was local activist Rich Neumeister who struck me with his passionate defense of the “inquiring mind” that fuels his lifelong embrace of the spirit of inquiry to effect change.

Rich was just one of several committed open government advocates who spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon sharing their thoughts and experiences; they were the first interviewees in a fledgling video story of how and why the right to know matters. All had accepted an invitation to participate in an independent project with which I have the privilege of collaborating with Matt Ehling, President of Public Record Media.

The impetus of the project was to recognize the 50th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); the strategy is to do so by “putting a face on” the right to know. To do this we are calling on people who represent the myriad facets and faces of how open government laws make a difference in real life. We will videotape and share their ideas, their recollections, their knowledge and their suggestions, then share those stories with Minnesotans as a way to spread that spirit of inquiry and thus inspire others to exercise their right to know.

What emerged from these first interviews was one unifying thought – that the life force of the right to know is the inquiring mind. It is the spirit of the individual who realizes the power of information that leads to change at the neighborhood or the national level.

It is our contention that, by using technology to share the experiences, perspectives and insights of these and other individuals we will celebrate not just the fact of open government but the power of inquiry itself.

On the one hand the focus is on the keys to implement the rights codified in FOIA and related legislation — sound policies, efficient bureaucracies, a free press, and a thoughtful approach to digital age challenges.

Still, the power of the right to know rests in the inquiring minds of individuals who place a priority on good information by and about the government. It is these inquisitive agents of change who breathe life into the right to know. They exercise that right by harnessing the power of information to improve their lives, their neighborhoods, their institutions.

In turn, they share their passion for inquiry and their knowledge of the channels of access, especially with young learners who too often know more about the how’s than the why’s of information access.