More governments are closing meetings and records to the public.
Bad signs in the news:
- Political leaders set ground rules for reporters as to what can and cannot be reported from a budget briefing.
- Government employees are barred from speaking with reporters about certain subjects.
- Cameras are barred from a question-and-answer session with government officials.
- Government employees are disciplined for speaking candidly with journalists.
Since Sept. 11, the smoldering resentment of the media among government decision-makers has been flashing into open flames with depressing regularity. State legislatures have given serious consideration to bills that would withdraw more public information behind veils of secrecy. Now, top government officials are trying to manage the flow of information about financial issues and, perhaps, other issues as well.
In recent years, the expanded structure of secrecy was held up by one central pillar: Privacy. Since September, fear has raised new pillars of Safety and Security. Now a fourth, far more arrogant, pillar appears to be under construction: government efficiency.
Increasingly, journalists have reported that officials in state and local governments are simply shutting the door on the public in some of the most basic discussions of government. In Alaska, for instance, state lawmakers held a two-hour closed meeting in January to discuss the state’s billion-dollar budget deficit. That same month, City Council members from Calais, Maine, held a closed-door session to talk about an international bridge with officials from a neighboring city in Canada. (Because the meeting took place across the border, Calais officials said they were simply abiding by the Canadians’ rules and procedures.)
Even worse, we’re now seeing reports of government entities placing restrictions on reporters and issuing virtual gag orders on government employees.
In January, the village of Asharoken, N.Y., passed a law that criminalizes leaks of information from closed-door meetings – a virtual gag order on public officials and employees.
Also in January, Tennessee’s governor and top members of the legislature met to discuss that state’s fiscal crisis. While a couple of pool reporters were present in the otherwise closed-door meeting, media who participated in the pool were not allowed to attribute quotes or proposals to specific legislators.
Some Tennessee media outlets, including the AP, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Nashville City Paper, refused to join the pool in protest. However, a majority of major news outlets agreed to the conditions after reaching an agreement that attribution could be printed after independent confirmation.
(It’s worth noting that Tennessee’s General Assembly has been exempted from its own open meetings law by the state’s Court of Appeals.)
In March, a spokesman for New Jersey Governor James McGreevey told the media that the state’s top treasury officials could not be quoted by name following the governor’s budget address. The restriction apparently was intended to keep attention focused on McGreevey’s remarks for that day’s news cycle. Additionally, no cameras were allowed for the “anonymous” question-and-answer session with the treasury officials. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, dozens of reporters refused to accept the rules and walked out of the briefing.
Meanwhile, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley ordered all state employees to keep their mouths shut regarding that state’s long-running budget crisis and the latest announcements of job cuts that have resulted. According to reports, the order was relayed through Easley’s Cabinet-level secretaries and other upper-level managers.
Then came word through the Detroit Free Press that U.S. Border Patrol agents Mark Hall and Robert Lindemann had been suspended for 90 days for speaking with reporters from the newspaper about security lapses following the Sept. 11 attacks. Each was then given a one-year demotion after an interview appeared on NBC’s “Today” show.
One would hope that Americans eventually would find their sense of outrage over this new government unwillingness to share information that affects them. However, it appears that significant numbers of our fellow citizens have adopted a post-Sept. 11 attitude of “government knows best.” That attitude plays into the hands of state governments, especially those faced with difficult and controversial financial situations, that might prefer to discuss solutions behind closed doors and then implement them without the benefit of significant public input.
Additionally, many citizens link access to information with terrorism and don’t care for speech that goes against the current national grain. In March, the Freedom Forum reported that 40 percent of Americans surveyed think the government should crack down on comedians making light of the Sept. 11 attacks.
I’ve always believed that such attitudes are popular until citizens discover they need information from their government and can’t get it, either because the law condones secrecy or because government employees and officials simply don’t (or won’t) comply with FOI laws and principles.
One hopes that, sooner or later, Americans will say “enough is enough” and demand that anti-terror measures don’t compromise government openness. As always, the first step is for journalists to do their jobs and report what’s happening.
Second, news outlets should follow the example of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, which organized a statewide editorial campaign in March to protest bad legislation in that state. Third, we all should take every opportunity to stand on our bully pulpit and explain why open government is everyone’s concern. And why any step backward today might be hard to undo tomorrow.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.