With 2003 in the books, it’s time to recap a busy, busy year on the FOI front and prioritize for the battles ahead in 2004. Your FOI Committee spent the year standing up for access to government records and proceedings in the face of unprecedented efforts at secrecy from the executive branch on down to the small towns of America.
Leafing through an e-mail inbox marked “SPJ FOI,” I came across hundreds of messages from all over the country that came my way in the past year. After re-reading many of them, trends emerged – hints at battles to come, and battles to rejoin, in the year ahead. Some of these developments are retreads, tired old tactics that never work in the long run but constantly tempt public officials seeking to hide their business from the light of day. Others pose new challenges, often abetted by technology. All, however, demand vigilance from SPJ.
Here are a few of the obvious, and not-so-obvious, threats to openness in the year ahead:
Privatization: An ever-increasing number of government services are being contracted out to private corporations – corporations whose managers see no benefit to sharing their records with the public, even when they are providing traditional government services. From private prisons to school bus companies and trash collection firms, privatization continues to challenge basic principles of public records laws. States that have not addressed this issue will have to sooner or later, so make sure that access advocates and press groups in your state press the issue themselves.
Homeland security: More than half the states have passed a dizzying variety of laws aimed at protecting sensitive homeland security documents from public disclosure. A review of these laws illustrates the vagaries of lawmaking: For every narrowly written exemption filled with precise language and protections for the public interest, there is a vague, overbroad statute of little use to anyone without substantial judicial interpretation. Indeed, the courts ultimately will give meaning to many homeland security exemptions, but in the meantime, efforts are under way in many states to add even more exemptions in the name of fighting terrorism.
None of us wishes to see truly harmful information released to the public, but SPJ and other press groups must continue to influence the debate by pointing out the value of maximum access. Often ours is the only voice urging restraint and reminding elected and appointed officials of the limits of their power. It is a difficult, often unpopular stance, but we must remind all Americans that official secrecy rarely, if ever, has made us safer, and indeed has often done great damage to national interests.
“Gag orders” on municipal employees: The past year saw SPJ weigh in on several variations of the City Hall gag order. The general theme: A public relations officer or government exec – often angered by coverage – orders all police officers, or city workers, or members of a budget team, or any other group not to talk to any member of the news media unless cleared by the central command.
This is a slap in the face to the citizenry that elects and pays the salary of every municipal employee. It is of dubious constitutionality, since a government official is in essence denying employees hired by the state an opportunity to exercise the First Amendment right of free speech. It is terrible public policy, as it sends a chilling message to municipal workers, stifles an important avenue for exposing fraud and corruption and places the city’s “image” above reality as a value worth protecting.
Expect this trend to continue to sweep the nation in the coming year. The only way I see to combat it is good, old-fashioned solidarity: Members of the news media need to sit down and decide to work together to break such heavy-handed tactics by turning off the cameras, putting the notebooks away and refusing to play by such unfair rules.
This fall, we saw the same tactics employed by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in his road show in defense of the USA Patriot Act. Ashcroft’s deft management of the media resulted in a series of propagandistic “public events” that were anything but public. Audience members were hand-picked, flags were handed out like candy and the scene was set for the transmission of a single, unmistakable message: Everyone in this town simply loves the USA Patriot Act! Protesters and anyone deemed a threat to disagree with the propaganda were not welcome. And afterward, the coupe de grace: a sit-down with local TV reporters, while print reporters were asked to leave.
When SPJ’s FOI Committee learned of these road rules, committee members worked tirelessly to obtain a schedule of upcoming events. We then alerted the local media to the rules and asked them to protest directly with Ashcroft’s handlers. Three cities later, in Memphis, (whether through our efforts or not we’ll never know) the attorney general invited print reporters to stay and ask questions.
It was a small moment, but it illustrates perfectly the power we wield when we work as one. We’ll need that sort of solidarity – rare in media circles – time and time again in the fights to come. That’s why SPJ is so important: It fosters that solidarity and provides a forum for the exchange of information and ideas – and a heads-up when a draconian media access policy is coming to your town.
In 2004, let’s resolve to work together to further the people’s right to know.
Charles Davis is co-chair of SPJ’s FOI Committee and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri.