Tag Archives: Right to Know

Tomorrow’s journalists – challenges, rights, and great promise

The First Amendment is not so construed as to award merit badges for intrepid but mistaken or careless reporting. Misinformation has not merit in itself; standing alone it is antithetical to the purposes of the First Amendment as the calculated lie… The sole basis for protecting publishers who spread false information is that otherwise the truth would too often be suppressed. Supreme Court Justice Byron White

As often happens thinking and learning about a topic leads me to deep thoughts on where we go from here, how we are the creators of our own future.  Thus, reflecting on a recent post about Constitution Day (https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/we-the-people-celebrate-constitution-day-by-learning/) led me to reflect on our role as individuals on whom the Founding Fathers depended to meet their high expectations – specifically, 21st Century economic, technological and political  challenges that re-order the historic relationship between government, the press – and “we the people.”

As is their way, my thoughts turned to what comes next – Who and what forces will work to preserve the inalienable right to know?  What are characteristics, the status, the working environment of the nation’s journalists?   And thus I found myself wondering what are the influences on aspiring journalists, what is their training, and what will lure a fledging seeker of truth to risk a life as a professional journalist?

Clearly, these concerns were shared by those far wiser:

Moreover, the Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Committee has produced a resource guide specifically related to Constitution Day 2017. http://jeasprc.org/2017-constitution-day-lessons/.  In fact. the Scholastic Press Rights Committee is an information mecca of essentials.  The Committee has published a video intro and links to new materials, lessons learned and timely resources on the rights of student journalists.

Other timely resources include these:

  • An article by Matthew Smith on the “importance of independent active press” focuses on the Constitutional rights aspect of student journalism focuses on the local scene: http://urbanmilwaukee.com/2016/05/06/your-right-to-know-state-should-protect-student-journalists/
  • The Journalism Education Association report entitled “Promoting Scholastic Press Rights Legislation: A blueprint for success” is exactly what the title suggests, a comprehensive blueprint for action. This is thorough and timely review of the rights of student journalists, steps to be taken in a student press rights action plans, related organizations that support student journalists’ rights, sample laws and recommended language. One essential feature of this resource is an excellent listing of related organizations, historical information about past legislation, and the names of experts who can offer opinions about legislative language.
  • The JEA also hosts a robust website, http://jeasprc.org that features a unique “Tools of Truth Landing Page” that covers current topics related to student journalists’ rights  http://jeasprc.org/tools-of-truth-landing-page/
  • The Student Press Law Center, established in the post-Watergate era, now headquartered in Virginia, focuses on the legal rights of high school and college journalists: https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=Student+Press+Law+Center&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8
  • The National Scholastic Press Association (http://studentpress.org/nspa/), located near the campus of the University of Minnesota, “promotes the standards and ethics of good journalism as accepted and practiced by print, broadcast and electronic media in the United States,”

Constitution Day 2017 inspires us to take a long view of a free press.  To do so demands that we get a better sense of what’s happening in student journalism.  Some indicators are close at hand:

In high schools and colleges throughout the nation young journalists are tackling major issues of social justice, civil rights, press freedom and the right to know.  Their rights demand attention and deserve recognition.

“I became a journalist is to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”Henry Luce

IMPORTANT UPDATE: https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2017/aug/28/Student-Journalist-FOIA-Grant/

Congress moves to expand access to critical research

Though probably unscheduled, the pending expansion of access policy re. reports of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is super-timely.  CRS staff research and reports are valued as authoritative , timely and consequential resources, heretofore reserved for members of Congress, their staff, and info mavens. .  Extending access to the general public is something like a digital fireworks display for seekers of authoritative information.

For decades the debate has centered on one key question:  Does “confidentiality” demand that the work product of CRS staff serve Congress members and staff only, or does it rightfully belong to the public. In fact, though insider seekers of truth had routes to the motherlode access was a practice more honored in the breach than in the practice.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes the less-than-free flow of information https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congressional_Research_Service_reports.  And that has been the practice for decades.

Until last week when access advocates announced that there is a light at the end of the legislative tunnel.  Members of the House Appropriations Committee passed the legislative branch appropriations bill which includes “strong language” mandating that all non-confidential CRS reports be made publicly available.” Though no legislative initiative is ever “over till it’s over” hopes are high that the full House will concur and that the Senate will pass a companion bill.  With all due respect to CRS and the virtue of solid research and truth-telling, this bill will probably not make headlines or warrant a filibuster.  And yet, in the current environment, access to authoritative, unbiased, current information matters more than ever!

In his comments on the legislative state of things the American Library Association spokesperson wrote this:

The Committee has debated this issue for several years, and after considering debate and testimony from entities inside the legislative branch and beyond the Committee believes the publishing of CRS reports will not impede CRS’s core mission in any impactful way and is in keeping with the Committee’s priority of full transparency to the American people. Within 90 days of enactment of this act CRS is directed to submit a plan to its oversight committees detailing its recommendations for implementing this effort as well as any associated cost estimates.

The timing is ideal.  As Americans celebrate the 4th with fireworks, parades and picnics this small step for the democracy is a giant step for an informed democracy.  The quantity and quality of CRS reports is beyond belief  – Check out the history of CRS publications here:  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/

Assuming that this legendary level of quality is allowed and funded to continue, we will be better informed citizens, capable of more informed decision-making.  Something like the forefathers had in mind when they signed their names….

Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.

Abraham Lincoln, 1861

High expectations+vigilance will preserve 1st Amendment rights

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected **

Though of disputed origin, the quote reflects my deep faith in the guiding premise of the First Amendment that affirms the fundamental role of a free press in a democracy.   The digital age presents a mighty challenge to both – in terms of role, economics, technology, critical thinking and attitudes. As the role and power of a free press is tested at this hour it behooves those who depend on the free flow of information and ideas to exercise what a wise mentor described as “perceptive paranoia”.

Journalists have spoken, perhaps most adamantly in the letter that a host of professional journalism associations have sent to the President-Elect. Because the thrust of their letter is press access to the Executive Branch, the writers note that “this isn’t about access for the press itself; it’s about access for Americans in diverse communities across the country.” To read the full text of that letter click here: http://www.poynter.org/2016/journalism-organizations-call-on-trump-to-uphold-traditions-of-white-house-coverage/439519/

Suffice to say, the press, a bit mollified by recent miscalculations, is roiled up and divided in their prognostications of what’s to come. In yesterday’s WaPo David Drezner describes the contrast between Obama’s “no drama” mantra, the “tight-lipped” approach of both Bush administrations, and that, which is to come.  Drezner concludes that, though “many will fret that this is just the beginning of an administration that will test the constraints of the First Amendment…if the past week suggests anything, it is that the Trump team will need the press just as much as it claims to loathe it.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/16/the-outsized-role-of-the-press-in-the-trump-administration/?utm_term=.42f3180cd910

Today the forces of information and communication technology are one and the same, the reality of which is not lost on Steve Bannon who has long worked off the grid to share information/misinformation that has clearly shaped and reinforced public opinion and voter behavior.

Lip service to a free press will not suffice today. Nor will passive inaction assure that the First Amendment remains as the core tenet of the democracy, given the prominence imbued by the founding fathers as first among the inalienable rights afforded citizens of the new nation.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That’s the story of my lofty expectations for a free press and an informed citizenry. As always, it is up to the body politic to maintain constant vigilance, even as political reality, coupled with communication and information technology, challenge our assumptions about how and why we know what we know about our government.

** The origin of the adage is a story in itself:  http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004100.html *

 

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.

 

Librarians Face Digital Dilemmas with Principles, Experience & Concern for Patrons’ Rights

As the nation grapples with the Faustian choice between the right to know and the right to privacy, librarians should have a place at the table.  From time immemorial they have struggled to balance the rights.  Librarians have staunchly fought for open government and gone to jail to protect their patrons’ privacy against over-zealous government snooping.  The fact is that librarians think a lot about information; as one observer writes, they are “information connoisseurs.”

Thousands of librarians are gathered this week in Chicago where they will find grounding in traditional principles honed in a print environment to face the challenges of a digital world.   Though the ramifications are incalculable, none is more center stage than those that juxtapose the dilemma between access and privacy now challenging the nation.

Unreconstructed advocate for open government that I am, I am proud of the library profession for its staunch commitment to privacy.  Wise professionals have anticipated the threats to patrons’ privacy.  Towards this end the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom maintains a robust library of digital resources devoted to the principle that the preserving “the freedom to read and receive ideas anonymously is at the heart of individual liberty in a democracy.”

In a recent position paper the Office of Intellectual Freedom directly faces the tension between the right to access and the right to privacy.  The report makes the clear distinction between personal and public information.  At the same time OIF anticipates the confusion facing Americans in the wake of leaks of government and attendant charges and challenges:

When the right to privacy is eroded or stripped away, people are more likely to abandon or curtail their exploration of unpopular and unorthodox points of view.  This chilling effect puts the intellectual development of our citizenry at risk.  The very character of the American mind, which is premised on open inquiry, is thereby robbed of the free flow of ideas that makes innovation possible.

In the past, closing a curtain, sealing a record, or simply choosing not to share one’s information could protect privacy.   But emerging technologies are compromising privacy rights and changing social norms.  Computers, online networks and databases collect and store personal information, which may then be freely traded among government offices, corporations, and law enforcement agencies without an individual’s knowledge or consent.  Few people protest when they are required to give away their personal information Identity theft and data breaches are occurring more frequently – confirmation that individuals can no longer feel confident that the institutions holding their information are treating it with due care and consideration.

Other privacy rights are equally at risk.  Concerns about national security and crime have spurred political interest groups and law enforcements agencies to question traditional expectations of privacy.  These groups are now advocating changes in the law that diminish stator privacy protections and permit the government to peer into personal lives.

 Librarians who have their professional fingers on the pulse of the public and of the technology know that in a digital age Americans must be responsible for their own information privacy.   As usual, they know that ultimate responsibility for protection of individual rights an informed public.  The concern is that many people who routinely use public access facilities are unaware of the potential intrusion on their right to privacy. As part of Choose Privacy Week 2013 the ALA posted a useful tip sheet for patrons entitled Protect Your Privacy While Using Public Computers & Wi-Fi appropriate for libraries or any other public setting.

The usual suspects – politicians, propagandists and pundits – would do well to update their stereotypes and pull up some chairs for the librarians who have spent their professional lives cogitating digital age dichotomies long before they went viral.

 

Re-thinking the public’s right to know vs. the public’s right to privacy

American democracy is a conspiracy of special interests against the general interest, but every special interest thinks that it is the general interest.  Michael Kinsley, Washington Post, February 20, 2005.

Media attention to open government issues has always tended to veer toward getting the interviews and opening the books when the spotlight is on an individual by whom or about whom information is either disclosed  or withheld.  We love to hear and talk about people more than issues or cold, inert information.  Just as important,  the tension between proponents or privacy and supporters of transparency makes good copy.

Clashes between privacy and open government are everywhere in the media these days, leaving confusion and concern on the minds of many Minnesotans.  As one of those trying to unravel the issues I recently revisited a  paper  I had filed years ago.  Entitled “Caught in the Middle: Access to State Government Records in the United Statesthe paper was presented by Richard Pearce-Moses at the Japan-U.S. Archives Seminar in May 2007.  At the time Pearce-Moses was Director of Digital Government Information at the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.  In this highly charged privacy/transparency environment, it’s worth a re-read. 

Pearce-Moses defines his basic argument at the outset: 

What is the value of archives if not to provide access to information? Why spend time and effort collecting and organizing records if no one will ever use them?  Access to information is a cornerstone of the archival profession.  At the same time, archivists recognize and respect individuals’ and corporations’ rights to privacy, as well as legal restrictions on access to records in their custody.  The irony for public archives is that, at least in English, the word public embraces two contradictory senses: the records are public, in the sense they are of the people, but they are necessarily public, as some are confidential.

He is quick to remind the reader of the clear distinction between the requirement of government to preserve the record and the lack of parallel responsibility on the part of corporations and private individuals.

The legal aspect of access Pearce-Moses defines as Protecting the Government’s Interests vs Privacy.  The practical application of the law, he notes, usually focuses on “records”, including all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics.”  The word “all”, he says, “incompasses a lot of material.”  The question itself has significant implications when it relates to states’ providing for inspection of public records.

Courts, he writes, have routinely held that access to records is subject to reasonable rules and regulations to avoid disruption of regular business.  However, the agency and the individual or organization making the request may have different ideas as to what they consider to be unreasonable disruption.

The thorny issue often lies in the area of definitions of information, records, and public records – an increasingly cloudy area that has loomed for a couple of decades. Exploding technology has become a staggering challenge to Deciders in today’s tsunami of tools that few have or take the time to consider in the longer term.

Neither bilateral nor ad hoc thinking is sufficient.  It will not suffice to tweak old models. This paper reminds me of just how essential it is for the concerned parties, including the public,  to drop the cudgels and come to grips with the fact that we must reframe the very issues of the public right to privacy and the public right to know.  The processes that protect those rights must flow from not dictate policy.

 

 

International Right to Know Day

Though you may not read or hear much about International Right to Know Day on September 28, 2010, the astounding fact is that NGO’s, press groups and others in over forty nations worldwide will be taking a moment to celebrate the essential, if implicit, human right.  Since its inception in 2002 the goal of RTK Day has been to raise global awareness of individuals’ right to access government information and to promote access to information as a fundamental human right.

The underlying principles echoed throughout the celebration of RTK Day are that public interest takes precedence over secrecy and that public bodies play a proactive role as vehicles of public access.  Though transparency has become a buzz word at every level of government, organizations and advocates who are truly concerned might well take a collective deep breath and review the reality.  For advocates laboring in the local vineyard there is strength to be found in the fact that committed colleagues in a host of nations are making waves and even progress.  While Canada celebrates International RTK – and the right itself – with great gusto other nations ranging from Bulgaria to China to Nigeria believe, work and are taking concrete steps to promote the right to know as a basic human right.

One example of work in progress is the extensive draft report currently being circulated for discussion throughout Europe.   Access Info Europe and the Open Knowledge Foundation, in collaboration with Open Society Institute Information Program, are holding a “public consultation” on open government data and the right of access to information based on that document that bears the working title Beyond Access. The draft report assesses the current status of open government data and the right to reuse, offering a current and inclusive review of movements, examples and comments on future directions.  It’s worth a look.

FOI Advocates offers an excellent mix of ideas of ways that individuals and organizations of virtually every stripe can celebrate RTK Day 2010 – it’s specific, thought-generating and very useful.  It’s not too late to turn out a letter to the editor, an exhibit or a quick self-assessment of what your or your organization is doing to promote – or inhibit – access.