The Society of Professional Journalists has long supported the formation of coalitions to improve access to government records and meetings. SPJ chapters throughout the United States have been catalysts to creating state-level open government groups.
By joining with good-government advocates, librarians, historians and public officials, the coalitions have brought more clout to statehouse access debates, gained information through court challenges and trained citizens about their right to know. It makes sense that SPJ join such coalition-building on the national level.
In a mid-March meeting at the National Press Club, SPJ joined with other groups to chart a course for national access coalitions. Representatives of two coalitions – one made up of public interest groups and the other of journalists and media groups – talked of strategy in a post-Sept. 11 environment of unprecedented secrecy.
Former Miami Herald Editor Pete Weitzel is organizing the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government from a Washington D.C.-area office. SPJ is among the growing list of journalism groups on the membership list. The second group, Open the Government, hopes to draw support from groups that have interest in rolling back secrecy and strengthening the Freedom of Information Act.
It’s not the first time SPJ has participated in joint FOI efforts, but this one appears to hold promise, particularly with financial backing from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
THEMES FOR COOPERATION
Some common themes emerged from the March meeting:
• Creating a communication system between the diverse groups that can alert members about top threats to access.
• Setting priorities for legislative improvements of the Freedom of Information Act and other information laws and regulations.
• Establishing a rapid response system that could help bring grass-roots action on important FOI issues.
• Seeking new partners in the fight against secrecy and strengthening the FOIA.
• Sharing common resources already in place for education, litigation and creating more grassroots involvement.
• Asking candidates to take stands on FOI and access issues during this campaign.
Speakers reminded attendees that access coalitions can’t be a flash in the pan, but must be sustained efforts. Paul McMasters, former SPJ national president and ombudsman for the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, cited the yearslong campaign that lead to Congress enacting the Freedom of Information Act. He suggested that pro-access institutions are needed to stop an expanding shroud of secrecy.
Scott Armstrong, with the Information Trust, said advocates must realize secrecy is a process that does not occur overnight.
“We must resist, recruit, repair and roll back,” he said.
Most of the attendees at the strategy session had gathered in Rosslyn, Va., at the National Freedom of Information Day celebration March 16 to hear about the threats to access.
A NEW ERA OF SECRECY
During that conference, speakers said the post-9/11 environment has fostered a new era of secrecy. Historian Harold Relyea, with the Library of Congress, said the level of secrecy ranks only behind eras during World War I and the Civil War.
Philip Melanson, of the University of Massachusetts, said: “And since 9/11, the exponential growth in secrecy has really done a disserve to our public policy. We can’t have reasoned policy debates if we don’t know enough of what’s going on and know what the policy trade-offs are.”
At the top of panelists’ list of concerns were the “Critical Infrastructure Information” allowed under the nation’s Homeland Security Act and a new “Secret Homeland Security Information” designation.
Critical Infrastructure Information includes basic information about cities, environmental hazards, transportation and energy. The “Secret Homeland Security Information” applies to information shared by the federal government with local authorities. Access advocates worry that both designations could have serious implications on the public’s right to know.
SPJ GOES TO WASHINGTON
In March, national SPJ officers also spent time visiting members of Congress and federal agency officials, talking about threats to access and newsgathering.
SPJ leaders learned that a “Restore FOIA” bill has little hope in either chamber of Congress without Republican support. Republican senators’ staff members who met with SPJ leaders said Republicans are reluctant to sign on.
Democrats in Congress back bills to get rid of provisions in the Homeland Security Act that criminalize disclosure of “critical infrastructure information” voluntarily submitted to the government by businesses. The act also gives businesses that share information immunity from liability for wrongdoing that the information may reveal.
Along with requesting support for “Restore FOIA,” the SPJ delegation also asked members of Congress to consider changes in the FOIA that would make clear the losing party in FOIA lawsuits would pay court costs. Since a 2001 Supreme Court case, agencies have successfully argued they do not have to pay such fees.
On another front, a staffer at Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley’s office seemed optimistic about the chances of S. 554 passing the Senate. The bill would allow media coverage of federal court proceedings.
At the Federal Communications Commission, commissioners sympathized with SPJ’s concerns about inadvertent indecency, including vulgar language, in live news coverage. It is not likely the FCC will try to regulate or crack down on over-the-air, live newscasts with indecent language or images or penalize those who produce recorded news broadcasts that include warnings about strong language or indecent content.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, those charged with enforcing the privacy provisions of the Health Information Portability and Privacy Act (HIPPA) said the forthcoming “frequently asked questions” directed at law enforcement could help them better understand the law. However, HHS officials dismissed a suggestion that HHS better inform police and fire agencies about how much medical information they can provide to journalists. Journalists have complained that HIPPA has chilled law enforcement and fire departments from releasing condition information about victims or accidents, crime or disasters – even though police departments and parts of fire departments may not be subject to the law and its stiff fines for releasing medical information.
Joel Campbell is co-chair of SPJ’s FOI Committee.
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