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Guest editorial: The public's right to know

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Posted on March 17, 2011 |
By Sen. Patrick Leahy



This is the sixth anniversary of Sunshine Week, a time to take stock of the public’s right to know and to celebrate victories in making ours a more open and transparent government. 

It was more than 40 years ago that Congress enacted the landmark Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This watershed law ushered in a new and unprecedented era of transparency in government. More than four decades later, the public and the press continue to draw on FOIA to better understand what the government is doing. Without the sunlight FOIA provides, government officials make decisions in the shadows, and face little accountability for their actions. The Freedom of Information Act provides that window into what the government is doing in the name of the American people.

We have succeeded in recent years in strengthening the Freedom of Information Act. I was proud when the OPEN Government Act was signed into law a few years ago, after years of thoughtful debate in Congress. That law marked the first significant reforms to FOIA in more than a decade, and was the result of bipartisan work in both the Senate and the House. I was pleased to work on that important law with my longtime partner on FOIA issues, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas. We have continued that partnership, and last Congress we again teamed up to further the progress made with the OPEN Government Act when we introduced the OPEN FOIA Act, a new law that requires Congress to explicitly and clearly state its intention to provide for a statutory exemption to FOIA in new legislative proposals. 

I look forward to continuing that productive partnership with Senator Cornyn as we work together this year to enact the Faster FOIA Act, a bill that charters a bipartisan commission to assess and help improve FOIA implementation. I have set a hearing for this week to get the ball rolling.

 The digital age opens new opportunities for the public to access information about their government with greater ease and wider availability. More and more, Vermonters and all Americans are turning to the Internet for information. Traditional media sources are finding new ways to deliver information online, and social media is connecting readers and viewers in ways never seen before. 

 Technology has made information much easier to gather, share and store. The social media revolution is riding this wave, carrying us along. This is also a time when security and safety concerns motivate governments to build or hire databanks that hoard vast bits of information about each of us. At a time when our government knows more and more about us, we need FOIA all the more to learn what our government is doing.

 And while government must be accountable to the people it represents, so too must the people empower their government to provide for the safety and security of its citizens. There are difficult questions that must be asked – and answered – about the responsible disclosure of government information. Like many Americans, I remain deeply troubled by the unauthorized release of classified government information.  Safeguarding information about our national security and demonstrating our commitment to open government are equally important priorities. Our national policy on handling information must balance both of these important interests. 

 Information is a freedom, but information also is a right and a requirement for effective self-government. Information is a pillar of our democracy. Without it, citizens are kept in the dark about key policy decisions that directly affect their lives. Without open government, citizens cannot make informed choices at the ballot box. Once eroded, these rights are hard to win back.

 Keeping FOIA effective takes a constant vigil. Recent headlines on FOIA-related issues range from a major Supreme Court case to compliance levels at individual agencies. Making and keeping FOIA effective requires attention to process, to policymaking, and to priorities. Today’s generations of Americans can be proud of keeping the FOIA flame burning brightly on our watch, amid an endless array of challenges and threats. 

 A government of the people, by the people and for the people must be accountable to the people.  Sunshine Week invites us to recommit ourselves to promoting an open and transparent government, accessible to the people. It is a commitment we make not just for the people of today, but for the generations of Americans to come.

  Editor’s note: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was installed in the Freedom Of Information Act Hall of Fame in 1996 and won the Robert Vaughn FOIA Legend Award in 2009. He is the author of the Electronic FOIA Amendments of 1996 and coauthor of the OPEN Government Act.

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