Tag Archives: Freedom of Information Day

James Madison – Constitutional Anchor for the Digital Age

This reflection on James Madison was written several years ago in observance of Freedom of Information Day.  Because the influence of Madison seems to have faded from the limelight in recent Freedom of Information observances, it seems right and just to dust off the tribute so we remain vigilant to preserve our principles of open government in this digital age.  MT

We may know James Madison, born March 16, 1751, as “Father of the Constitution”, the president whose home got torched during the War of 1812, or husband of the delightful Dolley.  On the anniversary of his birth we honor him with an annual Freedom of Information celebration in which a network of advocacy groups throughout the nation take part.

The reason why is expressed in the following quote:  Madison observed that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

We take seriously Madison’s wise counsel, with focus on the means of acquiring “popular information.”  We cherish a free press.  We condemn book burning and censorship.  We pass laws that ensure open meetings and government transparency.

Likewise, we honor Madison’s confidence that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” and operate on the principle that, when truth and falsehood are allowed to grapple freely, truth will win out.

We the people honor Madison by attending with equal diligence to his admonition to “arm” ourselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  Madison, an inveterate learner, devoured veritable libraries from his own collection and from tomes on loan from Jefferson.  Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederation,” an examination of factors that either facilitate or inhibit good government, embodies his conviction that the decision-maker armed with knowledge will prevail.

One meaningful way to celebrate Madison’s birthday is to make a serious individual effort to “get up and do what needs to be done” to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree.

With the other founders, Madison helped establish a set of principles and practices by which “a people who mean to be their own governors” might do so.  On Madison’s birthday, Saturday March 16, we recognize the necessity of popular attention to a perpetual need – public access to public information.  Though the devil may be in the detail of how that works out in today’s political, economic and polarized environment, Madison’s resolute and resilient commitment to an informed democracy offers the possibility of common ground that fosters responsible governance.

 

 

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Rays of Hope from Sunshine Week 2013

It’s eight years now since the first Sunshine Week, celebrated this week, March 10-March16.  Sunshine Week  is a national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of freedom of information and open government.  The week was chosen to coincide with the birthday of James Madison (more about the Mr. Madison later).  At the national level the prime mover behind Sunshine Week was the American Society of News Editors, later joined by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In those eight years change on every front has transformed the very context in which we celebrate Sunshine Week 2013.   Change has occurred at such a dizzying pace that government, the press, and citizens may be at a loss, seeking for some framework to understand how open government could and should work in the 21st Century.

The fact that it is the press that initiated the concept of Sunshine Week is significant.  The media environment of today bears scant resemblance to what it was a decade ago.  Investigative reporting is more honored in the breach than in the observance.  Warp speed journalism doesn’t allow time for deep investigation.  The print press has faded in the wings as everyone with a smart phone is both a source and consumer of what passes for news.

The flow of information between government and the general populace is totally changed.  The government both gathers and produces information online – and with the change in format come challenges that confound agencies and constituencies alike.

Though the current administration has established policies to promote openness, the wheels of government grind slowly, and a strict diet of transparency is problematic at best.

So it is interesting to note what’s happening this week as the watchdogs of open government grapple with open government circa 2013.  Some examples:

  • Monday morning started with the Fourth Annual Department of Justice Sunshine Week Celebration at which the DOJ’s chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer led a discussion of federal agencies’ improvements in FOIA administration.
  • Symbolic but important, at the same time there was a rare viewing and discussion of the Freedom of Information Act at the National Archives, including a demonstration of the multi-agency FOIA portal.  Despite the bold pronouncement that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” charges of recalcitrance on the part of agencies will undoubtedly surfaced at this session.
  • On Tuesday, the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center  (EPIC) will host two panel discussions examining transparency and national security in the Obama administration’s second term.   These are all-star panels on hot topics.  This is one of two Sunshine Week sessions that will be webcast – reservations requested.  The webcast is Noon-3:00 p.m.  RSVP to www.foreffectivegov.org/webcastsrsvp
  • Also on Tuesday, March 12, the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee will hold a panel discussion, 6:30 p.m., about the effect on the press  of laws enacted globally after 9-11.
  • On Wednesday, March 12, there will be a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “We the People: Fulfilling the Promise of Open Government Five Years after The OPEN Government Act.”
  • At the same time Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the George Washington University Law School will be asking the question: Does U.S. Secret Law Threaten our Democracy?
  • Thursday the Brennan Center for Justice will host a panel discussion on the topic “Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform.”  Meanwhile the Cato Institute is holding a workshop looking at legislative data and Wikipedia and the National Press Club will host a panel discussion on using FOIA.
  • Friday is the Annual National Freedom of Information Day conference, this year at the Newseum.  In morning sessions Open the Government will presents its eighth annual Sunshine Week examination of the state of openness in the federal government, focusing this year on the outlook for the President’s second term.  The day includes a keynote discussion with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and a discussion of the new documentary Whistleblowers. The American Library Association will also presents it James Madison Award.  This FOI Day observance is the second of the week’s events that will be webcast beginning at 8:30 a.m. (7:30 CST)

It may tempting to think that these Sunshine Week activities are only for the Beltway Insiders and government geeks.  Still, without these Insiders, the watchdogs, the whistblowers and the faithful attendees at hearings and endless meetings,  the public right to access would surely be thwarted.

We depend on the eyes and ears – and collaborative efforts – of these observers to keep the decision-making processes remains open to the press and to the public.  They keep a watchful eye to be sure that the exigencies of the day do not interfere with the assumption of openness.  Though it may seem remote, consider these stories of the ways in which access to government information play out in the real world, the real world where it makes a difference to every one of us.

We may not be there to keep an eagle eye on the day’s decisions, but we live with the consequences.

 

 

John R. Finnegan – Visionary, Leader, Indomitable Advocate for the Right to Know

Nearly 25 years ago the fledgling Minnesota Coalition on Government Information adopted the mission to advocate for systemic change in policies and practices that support open government at the state and local levels.  The first action of the Coalition was to sponsor an annual event and award to promote awareness of the public’s right to know information by and about their government.

 

Echoing initiatives at the federal level the Minnesota Coalition members decided to celebrate Freedom of Information Day on March 16, a date chosen to honor the  life and work of James Madison, key framer of the Constitution and the First Amendment.

 

A corollary decision by the Coalition was to annually honor a Minnesota individual or organization that had taken a lead in support of open government.  When the question came to naming the state’s Freedom of Information Award the decision was both unanimous and from the heart.

 

John R. Finnegan, crusader for open government, was our hero – more than a symbol, intrepid toiler in the thorny bramble of bureaucratic and legislative resistance.  It was John who stood out to Coalition members who recognized John’s vision, leadership and unstinting efforts to tackle the devil in the details of crafting – and adopting — laws and policies ensure the public right to information by and about their government.

 

John’s proactive defense of open government flowed from his experience as a leader in journalism at the local and national levels where he stood, alone at times, as a defender of the First Amendment and the right to know.  His gaze never wavered from the legislative and bureaucratic predilection to ignore or evade the Minnesota’s laws and policies relating to open meeting, data practices and the need for constant oversight.

 

At the national level, John’s voice rose about the din.  In 2011 when he was inducted into the Freedom of Information Hall of Fame John delivered a brilliant defense of freedom of information that moved an audience to their feet.  His words delivered on that day will be remembered.

 

Though it is acknowledged that John had a “trunkful of awards,” the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award is unique.  This award is not for but about its namesake.  Each year on Freedom of Information Day the award will honor the life and inestimable contributions of John R. Finnegan, a man I have long described as Minnesota’s Patron Saint of open government.  John’s was a good life well lived defending the rights of the governed in an informed democracy.

James Madison, Father of the First Amendment

We may know James Madison, born March 16, 1751, as “Father of the Constitution”, the president whose home got torched during the War of 1812, or husband of the delightful Dolley.  On the anniversary of his birth we honor him with an annual Freedom of Information celebration in which a network of advocacy groups throughout the national take part.

 

The reason why is expressed in the following quote:  Madison observed that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a face or a tragedy; or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever government ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

 

We take seriously Madison’s wise counsel, with focus on the means of acquiring “popular information.”  We cherish a free press.  We condemn book burning and censorship.  We pass laws that ensure open meetings and government transparency.

 

Likewise, we honor Madison’s confidence that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” and operate on the principle that, when truth and falsehood are allowed to grapple freely, truth will win out.

 

We the people honor Madison by attending with equal diligence to his admonition to “arm” ourselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  Madison, an inveterate learning, devoured veritable libraries from his own collection and from tomes on loan from Jefferson.  Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederation,”  an examination of factors that either facilitate or inhibit good government, embodies his conviction that the decision-maker armed with knowledge will prevail.

 

One meaningful way to celebrate Madison’s birthday is to make a serious individual effort to “get up and do what needs to be done” to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree.

 

With the other founders, Madison helped establish a set of principles and practices by which “a people who mean to be their own governors” might do so.  On Madison’s birthday, Friday March 16, we recognize the necessity of popular attention to a perpetual need – public access to public information.  Though the devil may be in the detail of how that is works out in today’s political, economic and polarized environment, Madison’s resolute and resilient commitment to an informed democracy offers the possibility of common ground that fosters responsible governance.