To watch an FOI expert explore how to best further our cause, see video below of Gary Bass’s keynote address at the 2011 FOI summit co-hosted by NFOIC and NEFAC in Providence, RI
Freedom of Information is our right to access information from our government about our city, state or country so that we may study, understand and try to improve what is going on around us. Our right to information is given by the federal Freedom of Information Act and state public records and open meeting laws.[i] These laws govern our right to access records of the process of government. They also govern our right to participate in public meetings. Freedom of Information is fundamentally linked to our freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment of our Constitution.
In his 1971 Supreme Court decision, Justice John Harlan interpreted the First Amendment in Cohen v. California, writing that:
“[t]he constitutional right of free expression is powerful medicine in a society as diverse and populous as ours. It is designed and intended…to [put] the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us, in the hope that use of such freedom will ultimately produce a more capable citizenry and more perfect polity…”
Yet, without freedom of information, our ability to speak is largely defeated. Indeed, most of the First Amendment cases that protect freedom of expression center around reactions to political events. Without access to relevant information from the government about current affairs, we cannot exercise our rights to speech and expression effectively to influence and better our society.
As Justice William Brennan explained in the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court case Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, the reason for finding the freedom of information right as part and parcel with our First Amendment speech rights, was that the access right is a necessary tool in the hands of voters if “democratic processes” are to “function effectively.” He explained that constitutional access right is based upon a common understanding that the First Amendment protects the free discussion of governmental affairs so that “the individual citizen can effectively participate in and contribute to our republican system of self government.”
Lord Acton summarized the importance of freedom of information well in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” George Orwell’s Animal Farm illustrates this theory poetically; the allegorical novel about the persecuted animals who stage a rebellion and take over a farm, kicking out their human leaders. After their revolution, which was motivated by stirring political speeches about equality, the new pig leaders gradually become as tyrannical as the human oppressors were. Napoleon, the leader, has an aptly named communicator, “Squeeler,” who spreads misinformation to the other animals on the farm to provide support for his regime. The animals are suffering and starving but have no way to describe and complain about their state because the only information they are getting is misinformation.
Judge Damon J. Keith, writing for a three judge panel in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in a ruling declaring that the George W. Bush administration acted unlawfully in holding deportation hearings in secret, famously proclaimed that “democracies die behind closed doors.”
“When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation. The Framers of the First Amendment did not trust any government to separate the true from the false for us.”
We have to know what is going on around us. We have to be curious. We cannot work to solve any of our society’s problems without accurate and timely information. From crime to homelessness to environmental hazards to educational achievement, data and statistics available in public documents and considered at public meetings help us to clearly identify what is going wrong and craft appropriate responses to better our society.
We have placed some publicly available data and links for accessing more information on our website. We hope you will find it useful. Much of the data and information that the government has is not proactively made public, however. A “freedom of information” request is necessary to access many of the records maintained by the government.
What is a freedom of information request?
A freedom of information request is nothing more than a request for documents created and stored by our governmental bodies. Such requests may be verbal by law in many jurisdictions but should advisably be in writing so that a paper trail is created of when the request was made and what was requested. As part of our KNOW NEW ENGLAND public awareness campaign, NEFAC is partnering with a webservice MUCKROCK; each person who visits our website may use MUCKROCK’s user friendly interface to file one freedom of information request. This service files the request on your behalf and will track the request for you, following up on it if/when the governmental body is non-responsive. Visit a state specific page and click on “File an FOI request” for more information.
[i] Federal Freedom of Information Act 5 U.S.C. § 552(b) and State laws such as Connecticut’s Conn. Gen. Stat. §14, Maine’s Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. c. 758 (rpr) §1 -4 et. seq., Massachusetts’s Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 66, New Hampshire’s N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. ch. 91A, Rhode Island’s R.I. Gen. Laws §38-2, and Vermont’s Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 317.
National Freedom of Information Coalition
Dale R. Spencer Freedom Talk
- May 21, 2011.
- Providence Biltmore, Providence RI.
- Featuring NFOIC Executive Director Kenneth F. Bunting, Melinda Machones of the Dale R. Spencer Free Press Studies Endowment, NFOIC President Frank Gibson, OMB Watch Executive Director and Founder Gary D. Bass and John R. Finnegan, Sr., former Senior Vice President and Assistant Publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.