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:
- To review the basic Fact Sheet on the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 click here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/30/fact-sheet-new-steps-toward-ensuring-openness-and-transparency
- For a bit of background on the fifty years of implementation of FOIA, signed by a demonstrably reluctant Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966, click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_Information_Act_(United_States)
The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people. ~ Louis D. Brandeis