By Irwin Gratz, SPJ President
If you have ever scanned a listing of arrests and citations in your local paper, or were part of group to challenge a new subdivision or shopping mall, if you wondered how much a local school superintendent earns, or if you’re a business that’s looked over a state or federal agency’s contract bids, you’ve relied on a principle of American government called “Freedom of Information.”
It’s the principle that says, with few exceptions, we’re entitled to know what people in government know. It makes sense in a nation where ultimate power is vested in citizens. Those citizens may delegate power to government officials, but must retain the right to examine how that power is used. In the 1960s, this principle was enshrined in federal law with the “Freedom of Information Act.”
The Society of Professional Journalists, which I lead, has made preserving and enhancing Freedom of Information one of its core missions. As journalists, we rely on a ready availability of government information to act as your proxy; to review government behavior, and to give you a “heads up,” about changes in policy or local government actions. But we are not alone. In fact, analyses of the federal Freedom of Information Act show far more requests are filed by citizens and public advocacy groups than by members of the news media.
In recent years, the Freedom of Information principle has been challenged by many people at all levels of government invoking the needs of homeland security, as well by corporations worried about protecting trade secrets, and even by many of you, trying to protect yourself from misuse of your personal information.
All the above are worthy concerns. But you have to remember this: Every time government seals a record from public scrutiny, we all lose something. It may be the ability to know how government is trying to protect national security or whether business is behaving fairly and operating in the public interest. Even on a personal level, while we may want to keep certain information from being used by business (say health information by an employer), when we act to close off that information, it can make it unavailable to our friends and neighbors as well. It is already getting harder for clergy to know if you’re in a hospital. In many cases you can no longer check someone out by using their license plate number.
We, journalists, are serving as “trip wires” in this trend. We’re having a harder time learning the names of people who’ve been in accidents, due to new, federal health privacy rules. We are watching as page-after-page of government information is yanked off web sites. We are worried about new rules allowing companies that believe they are part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure,” to turn over information to the Homeland Security Department with a promise that public access to it will be denied.
If these restrictions on information continue to spread, it’s only a matter of time before you, someday, try to find out something your interested in only to find your way blocked by law.
Irwin Gratz is President of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization. He works in Portland, Maine, as a morning news anchor for the radio stations of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.