I routinely take to the flats in the Tampa Bay to wade fish.
When I go fishing, I usually know what I can catch.
But fishing the flats in the Tampa Bay offers a lot of surprises. Anything can turn up on your line – from a ladyfish to a big, fat trout to a bottom-feeding catfish to a hard-fighting snook.
I toss a shrimp into waste-deep water, often stained or thick with sea grass, and wait for something to take the bait.
It seems these days that legislators, government leaders and even the courts have taken to the fishing game as vigorously as I do on a warm day when the tide begins to move in.
I fish for relaxation.
The lawmakers and “trusted” public servants do, too – relaxation of laws and constitutional guarantees that protect the public from getting hoodwinked.
I catch and release.
History shows that the bureaucratic fishermen do not.
When they hook into a bad idea about how to keep the public out of their business, they do everything in their power to land it into law. And as we all know, once those restrictions make it into the creel, they never get out.
During the past several years, the bait of choice used to hook the masses into believing ignorance is bliss is a combination of fear and secrecy sprayed with a hint of terrorism.
Certainly terrorism is serious business.
But when government sets up a shell game that purports to keep us safe by keeping us scared and clueless, terrorism becomes secondary to political agendas – most of which have been pursued long before Sept. 11, 2001.
That’s why SPJ – through its Freedom of Information Committee, its state Sunshine Chair network, Project Watchdog, through its Legal Defense Fund and a yearlong series of workshops with Investigative Reporters & Editors on public access – remains at the forefront of the battle to stop these fishing expeditions.
Using the “9-11” card for personal and political gain is the equivalent of fishing with sticks of dynamite instead of circle hooks and on a 20-pound test leader and a medium-sized shrimp.
But lawmakers and bureaucrats do it more and more at the local, state and federal levels.
Exemptions to Sunshine Laws in all states grow and grow, many of them conveniently tied to “security and terrorism issues.”
But SPJ – like a good fish – fights back.
Roger Jewell was a Sunshine Award recipient during the national convention in Tampa. Jewell, of the Travelers Rest (S.C.) Monitor, showed courage and perseverance in the face of FOI problems with the local police department. Jewell wrote this to Holly Fisher, Region 3 director, after the convention:
“I will never, ever forget the awards luncheon and the awesome standing ovation that the kind people extended to me on Friday … I want to thank you for helping me. All of this is making me wonder what can I do to help the SPJ? If there is anything I can do for the organization or you, please let me know. I want and need to be more involved in the organization.”
Yes, SPJ helped Jewell, and now Jewell wants to help us.
That’s what SPJ is all about.
Some federal lawmakers now want legislation dealing with abridging civil rights and shutting down public access in myriad areas – laws bum-rushed through with nary a challenge in the wake of Sept. 11 – made permanent.
Yes, that creel I talked about.
SPJ will keep fighting to stop the tightening grip of The Homeland Security Act and its long reach.
During SPJ’s annual visit to Washington, D.C., in spring 2003, its leadership made gains in getting support for revisions in Homeland Security and Critical Infrastructure laws. Leadership will go back in the spring of 2004 to continue the fight.
Meanwhile, lawmakers and law enforcement have for some time known that reporters can find out more about their ills, and so the plan becomes to cast a net for journalists, haul them into court and demand that they reveal their sources, give up their notes, tapes and videotapes. If we refuse, they threaten us with criminal charges and jail time.
SPJ has offered support in these cases, too, through its legal counsel, Baker & Hostetler, and with the Legal Defense Fund.
And now we have come to find that an increasing number of federal court documents are being closed to the public.
As I write this column, SPJ is sending another letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft reminding him again that efforts to routinely deny public access pose grave concerns and that SPJ will lead the battle against them.
The mantra government would have us buy into is: “Trust us. You are better off not knowing about key issues in your neighborhoods, in your states and in your country because if you don’t, you will be safer.”
It’s a formula for disaster, and history proves that over and over again.
I recently returned from a foray to the flats and grabbed the Tampa area dailies, both of which carried stories about someone stealing stuff from a pickup truck parked in a Tampa hotel parking lot.
The news accounts reported that among the items snatched from a “consultant’s” truck were maps and instructions related to water treatment plant security systems.
These kinds of systems get a lot of attention from lawmakers at all levels when they fish for convenient ways to keep the public from knowing anything.
With the report on the truck theft, I could hear the legislative minds spinning.
“What interesting laws could be landed via this incident?” they will think.
“Let’s see, how about laws prohibiting consultants from carrying sensitive, security-related documents in pickup trucks? How about prohibiting consultants from staying at certain hotels? How about laws that prohibit media reports on parking lot thefts?
“I’ve got it. How about laws that prohibit the release of information in crime reports that may have even the most remote connection to security and terrorist-related activities.
“Now that’s a keeper!”
This is the kind of “fishing” that puts constant pressure on the public’s right to know and denigrates those things that make our country different and freer than any other.
For those reasons and more, it should be banned.
Gordon “Mac” McKerral, SPJ president, lives in Tampa. He can be reached at email@example.com.