COLUMBIA, Mo. - Our work at the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) focuses primarily on citizen access, transparency and open government issues at the state and local level.
But we are frequently drawn by overlap and the interrelationship of concerns into national affairs and matters related to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Though less frequent, we also have occasion from time to time to delve into international transparency issues.
Last month, I had an opportunity to address a delegation of top editors and senior investigative journalists from the newly independent southeastern European nation of Kosovo, who were on a U.S. State Department-arranged tour.
And even more recently, I corresponded with the leader of a counterpart freedom of information NGO in the Republic of Georgia.
The director of the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), Giorgi Kldiashvili, had made a general inquiry about "laws that regulate openness of government meetings" and applicable exemptions and exceptions.
In this email response to my southeastern European counterpart, civic-minded and engaged Americans may see little that is new to them. But, perhaps, it will serve as a reminder about the derivation of some of our precious freedoms, and their importance:
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My associate, Patrice McDermott, passed along a query that I believe you posted on a FOIAnet listserv. Here is a link that, hopefully, you will find more helpful than overwhelming:
Laws that govern the availability of government records, access to government information and access to public meetings vary greatly. But they all start with the philosophical ideal that written and recorded instruments of governments actually belong to the people. Those civil servants, bureaucrats and agency officials who have physical possession of records are mere custodians of them. Similarly, when local, regional and national legislative and governing bodies meet, they are doing so as representatives of all citizens.
Both open records laws and open meetings laws begin with the presumption that accessibility should be allowed, except when there's a clear, identifiable harm in those documents or gatherings being public. Would it unduly hurt someone with regard to his or her privacy? Would it interfere with the government agency doing its work well on behalf of the people? Would it be unfair to a private entity with regard to their business competition? Unless there is a specific reason to answer "Yes" to those questions, records should be public and accessible. And, meetings should be open to attendance and viewing by an average citizen.
In the U.S., it is pretty well established that not only should the public be able to attend and observe governmental meetings in most all circumstances, they should also have a clear right to communicate with members of representative bodies to make their feelings known.
Most often when disputes arise regarding the right to attend and watch, or the right to speak, those disputes center on open access and open meeting laws. However, long before those laws were on the books, the very First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution guaranteed Americans the "right to petition government for redress of grievances." So, it is as much a part of the fabric of the American democracy as is the right to say what one wishes to say, or to worship (or not worship) as one might choose.
The benefit of all of this is that self-government works better when it's done in the open. More efficient. Less corruption. More in line with the popular will.
I hope this helps. Best of luck in your efforts to establish good access laws in Georgia. As I told a delegation of journalists from a neighboring country recently, transparency is critical to self-government. Access to information is almost as critical to democracy as the voting franchise itself. You should expect perfecting government that is open, transparent and accountable to be an ongoing process. I do not pretend to suggest that we have perfected it in the U.S. We're still working hard to get it right.
You will find links to access laws for all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia in the link pasted above.
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Ken Bunting is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He is a former reporter, top editor and news industry executive who worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, among other newspapers.