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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do We Have Freedom of Information?


Writers, activists, politicians, government agencies, and the news media are fully aware of the weaknesses inherent in the 1966 legislation known as the Freedom of Information Act, but the question is this: What should and can be done to ensure that information flows to the public quickly, easily, and affordably?  Nothing less than the foundation of democracy is at stake – as well as the livelihood of book authors, journalists, and digital media.

Let’s backtrack for the moment. FOIA – or the Sunshine Laws – was enacted to ensure that the government is more transparent.  The media, that valuable branch of society that keeps others in check – legislative, executive, and judicial – needs to be able to have unfettered access to the communication records and documents of government agencies, its selected and appointed officials, and its employees.  

This means if we want to see emails from Hillary Clinton when serving as Secretary of State (assuming they aren’t classified), we should be able to.  But these records don’t just appear out of nowhere, out of the benevolence of the government.  Formal requests, sometimes lawsuits, are needed.  These requests cost money and the information presented is often delayed, filtered, and incomplete.  The media has to pay a lot of money for governments to transmit the requested documents, often at a level not affordable to most media outlets or bloggers.

Obviously a balance must be struck.  If a zillion requests come about, the government spends its time and resources tracking down, censoring, and copying these materials, so how much is a fair price to charge, and who sets it?  On the other hand, there should be no limit on the price we pay for freedom and the right to know.

A recent full-page article in USA Today summarizes it perfectly when it says: “Whether roadblocks are created by authorities to discourage those seeking information or simply a byproduct of bureaucracy and tighter budgets, greater costs to fulfill freedom of information requests can interfere with the public’s right to know.  Such costs are a threat to expanding openness at all levels of government.”

There are many organizations dedicated to securing the public’s right to know, including Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and the American Society of New Editors.  They also worry about issues such as keeping journalists safe in a war zone or media outlets being able to publish without government censorship.  But the FOIA and the issues connected to it should be at the top of the list in America. We invented free speech, didn’t we?  

We built a country based on having certain inalienable rights such as freedom of expression.  Let’s make those words mean something by finding a way to encourage or force governments to adhere to the spirit of the law.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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