The Freedom of Information Act Approaches Middle Age
Thirty five years ago, on October 1, 1975, Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act was born. The most compelling expression of the purpose behind passage of the FOI Act can be found in its preamble, which was read into the record of both houses of the General Assembly when the law was passed in 1975:
“The legislature finds and declares that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know….”
These were the concepts that inspired then-congressman Ella Grasso to make the creation of the FOI Act one of the primary planks of her campaign platform when she ran for Governor in 1974. Grasso had witnessed first-hand the impact of clandestine government run amok while serving in Congress during the height of the Watergate scandal.
Once elected, Governor Grasso along with Connecticut’s newspapers spearheaded the drive to ensure creation of the FOI Act. The legislature passed the law not only in response to the public’s pervasive mistrust of government in the aftermath of Watergate, but also with the realization that trust and confidence in government depend on a balanced disclosure of information.
One of the most significant and sophisticated aspects of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act is its creation of the FOI Commission. The Commission is an independent, government oversight agency charged with administering and enforcing the FOI Act. The law establishes the right of the public to have access to the records and meetings of all public agencies in Connecticut, thereby making government “transparent.” The FOI Commission has three basic functions: (1) educating and training public officials and members of the public; (2) adjudicating complaints alleging violations of the act; and (3) advocating for government transparency in the legislature and courts.
After the passage of thirty five years, it is a good time to assess how Connecticut is faring in terms of government transparency and what must be done to ensure its vitality. First, the FOI Commission has served as a model to other states looking to strengthen their open government laws, and to other countries - from newly emerging democracies to formerly totalitarian regimes - looking to create an open government law for the very first time. For this, Connecticut should be proud. Further, the longevity of the Commission, and the body of law created by it, ensure that Connecticut citizens have a reliable venue to bring their freedom of information disputes and that public officials have a consistent body of law to help guide their conduct.
However, those who are concerned about open government worry that with the passage of time comes the waning of memories about the import of freedom of information on all of our daily lives. Many today simply view the FOI Act as a law that is concerned with ensuring that citizens can find out what their government “is up to.” But, we should not lose sight that government transparency is about much more.
Without question, the FOI Act was enacted to enable citizens to gain information about their government. But, what is often forgotten is that transparency laws also enable citizens to obtain information about themselves, as well as statistical, scientific, historical and other information that the government collects for a multitude of reasons. A transparent government reveals how well it: handles disputes (for instance, disputes between citizens; disputes between law enforcement and citizens; and disputes between other government agencies and citizens); how it protects the environment; and how it interacts with certain segments of society, such as the sick, the poor, the disabled and the uninsured, to name a few.
Indeed, many of the issues faced by the Commission today relate to matters that were almost unimaginable at the inception of the act – information technology, including electronic data and documents; access to the internet; privatization (where governments “outsource” many traditional and important governmental functions) and national security and terrorism. As new issues emerge, it is important to remind ourselves that there have always been, and always will be, interests that compete with the notion of transparency. To a degree, the tension caused by such competing interests is quite healthy. And as such new issues evolve, it is essential that there is a reassessment of the proper balance between total openness and the need to protect other interests, such as privacy and security.
But, citizens and public policy makers alike must be careful not to simply accept the virtue of a competing interest over the interest of government transparency because it is appealing on its surface. Too often, the powerful words of the preamble are replaced with the following refrain: “I believe in open government, but….” Critical to the law’s vitality is that there must be thoughtful consideration and debate when exceptions to the rule of disclosure are considered. Without consideration and debate, the powerful words of the preamble to Connecticut’s flagship Freedom of Information Act, decrying secrecy in government and calling upon citizens to take charge of information in the hands of government institutions, will be forgotten.
In celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Connecticut FOI Act, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission and the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, Inc. will hold a dinner and reception on November 18, 2010, at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale. Highlighting the event will be a keynote address by author and journalist, Bob Woodward, who will receive the Walter Cronkite Freedom of Information Award. Mr. Woodward played a key role in revealing the Watergate political scandal - the precipitating event leading to passage of many government transparency laws in our nation.
For more information about the event and to purchase tickets, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
By: Colleen M. Murphy, Executive Director and General Counsel, Freedom of Information Commission and Eric V. Turner, Managing Director and Associate General Counsel, Freedom of Information Commission