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Democracy Demands Freedom of Information | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Democracy Demands Freedom of Information

Forty years ago this week, on July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act.

The choice of July 4 for the signing ceremony was no coincidence.

The signing of the Freedom of Information Act represented the realization of the promise of self governance that may have been born on July 4, 1776, butthat was never fully realized until 190 years later.

Why is the Freedom of Information Act such a big deal?

Because, as James Madison, the father of the Constitution, explained, ""Apopular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge willforever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors,must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."

Until the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, Americans were deniedaccess to information that should rightfully have been available to them,and without which they could not be their own governors. As John Moss, thecrusading California congressman who secured its passage, frequently noted,the Freedom of Information Act was the first law in the long history of theRepublic that gave Americans the right to access the records of federalagencies that are funded with their tax dollars and that are, supposedly, attheir service.

That is a right that, Moss argued, was every bit as essential to realizingthe full potential of America democracy as the protections contained in theBill of Rights. And, of course, he was correct. What good is freedom ofspeech if that speech is not informed by knowledge of what the government isdoing in our name but without our informed consent? What good is freedom ofthe press if reporters are unable to find out what government agencies areup to?

The American people well recognize the value of the Freedom of InformationAct. Millions of citizens have made FOIA requests over the past fourdecades.

Unfortunately, the hyper-sensitive and hyper-secretive Bush administrationis now at war with the Freedom of Information Act -- just as the New York Times-bashing president and his allies are battling Freedom of the Press.

In the first year of hispresidency, Bush's then attorney general, John Ashcroft, dispatched a memoto federal agencies that told their administrators to use delaying tacticsto thwart the intent of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Ashcroft'sorder directed federal agencies to stall the release of requestedinformation until the completion of a painstakingly slow "full anddeliberate consideration" of the implications of releasing any particulardocument.The response by federal agencies to FOIA requests slowed to a crawl,creating an outcry that finally led Bush to issue an order last year thatappeared to endorse the values contained in the Freedom of Information Act.In fact, that was not the case.

While Bush's language seemed to support openness – "Agencies shall processrequests under the FOIA in an efficient and appropriate manner and achievetangible, measurable improvements in FOIA processing" – his order wasactually a vague statement that was issued not to get agencies jumping onFOIA requests but to head off Congressional action on the bipartisan OpenGovernment Act.

Written to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, the Open GovernmentAct seeks to end stonewalling by establishing a deadline – 20 days after thefiling of an FOIA request -- by which agencies must respond.

It's a timely and necessary reform.

Yet, at this point, both the House and Senate versions of the OpenGovernment Act are languishing in the Judiciary Committees of the respectivechambers.

If Americans want on this 4th of July Holiday to honor the democratic values that arethis country's greatest strength, perhaps of the best way to do so is bymaking a resolution to contact our representatives in the House and Senateand tell them to support the Open Government Act. This enactment of thissimple reform will renew the promise not just of the Freedom of InformationAct but of the Declaration of Independence and the American experiment.

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