One thing about writing on FOI issues – there’s never a lack of things going on. From dramatic changes in federal records policy to state legislators making frontal assaults on public access laws to government officials at all levels finding creative ways to subvert open meetings requirements.
The troublesome thing is that the stories usually have a ring of sameness. The players may change, but the themes and the formulas are similar. I’ve heard the same stories and have been asked the same questions so often in phone conversations, interviews and e-mails that I sometimes feel like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” I also feel like a broken record – or a skipping CD – when I dispense the same answers or perspectives time after time.
But until government officials decide to renounce the well-worn reasons for locking up public records and locking citizens out of public deliberations, we’ll be dealing with the same issues and questions for the foreseeable future.
So, in the spirit of this Quill issue on ethics, I offer the following. Feel free to share it with a government records-keeper near you.
TEN COMMANDMENTS OF FOI
Thou shalt honor the law, both in letter and spirit. A violation of FOI law is still a violation, even if it doesn’t pack the penalties of other laws. Journalists must be willing to forcefully assert their rights to information, and public officials or employees should understand why.
Thou shalt recall who owns the information. Government doesn’t own public information; the citizens do. Government is only the collector and steward of that information. Good information stewards know what they have and how to get it. They also know the value it may have to others and strive to be helpful, not possessive.
Thou shalt not fear thy neighbors or their intentions. When someone – journalist or citizen – asks for a record or attends a meeting, it doesn’t mean that person necessarily is angry or intends to embarrass an employee, an office, a department or a government. It’s true that the requester and the records-keeper might have different perspectives, but that’s irrelevant.
Thou shalt not worship convenience. Government officials should not exclude the public from deliberations or decision-making because it appears to make life easier. Experience teaches that the time saved today often is offset by the additional time, energy and money spent defending decisions made illegally. Remember that a public scorned can be a powerful force.
Thou shalt look beyond the needs of today. Circumstances and “hot button” issues change. It may seem like a good idea to place records off-limits or keep people out of meetings because of current circumstances, but, in time, the decision to exclude the public may well be recognized as unwise. To paraphrase the old proverb, “Exclude in haste, repent in leisure.”
Thou shalt not make an idol of privacy. The operation of government is, by its nature, a public enterprise. Protecting individual privacy should never be an excuse for protecting government operations from public scrutiny.
Thou shalt not place money above service. A request for public records contained in public systems administered by public employees should not become an opportunity to subsidize those systems or employees. Remember, the taxpayers have paid for them once – they shouldn’t have to pay for them again.
Thou shalt honor diversity of language and format. A request for a paper document wouldn’t be denied because the requester didn’t ask for the right kind of paper. Electronic records should be available in formats that are convenient for the requester.
Thou shalt remember why these laws were written, or thou shalt be doomed to repeat the past. History teaches that when government is allowed to operate in secret, bad things happen. Public access and open government can prevent bad decisions and improper actions. They even can prevent crimes against the citizenry. It’s as simple as that.
Thou shalt let the sunshine in.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.