Inside the Times | Mike Fancher
Growing movement fights secrecy in government
"A government by secrecy benefits no one. It injures the people it seeks to serve; it damages its own integrity and operation. It breeds distrust, dampens...
Seattle Times editor-at-large
"A government by secrecy benefits no one. It injures the people it seeks to serve; it damages its own integrity and operation. It breeds distrust, dampens the fervor of its citizens and mocks their loyalty."
-- Sen. Russell LongLouisiana's late senator offered those words in support of the federal Freedom of Information Act. More than 40 years after its passage, sustaining the act's purpose is a continuing battle.
Some of its most vigilant advocates are in Seattle this weekend for the annual meeting of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
"The conference brings together access advocates from all over the country to share ideas, highlight successes, and head off the latest tricks in the secrecy trade," according to the group's Web site.
The coalition is an affiliation of state organizations dedicated to "protecting the public's right to oversee government." Its affiliate in our state is the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which co-hosted the conference at the Marriott Waterfront hotel.
"The Freedom of Information Movement is growing rapidly across the United States," said Charles Davis, the organization's executive director. Five years ago there were FOI (freedom of information) organizations in 30 states; today there are 44, with three more in the works.
"They are truly diverse coalitions organized around the public's right to know," Davis said.
Journalists like me are involved, but the national network is citizen-driven.
"We've got to build these things broadly and make them about people," Davis explained.
Coalition members cross all political perspectives, as well as social and economic circumstances. Davis said they come together to fight the notion that information belongs to the government and not to the people.
Davis' passion for freedom of information ignited in the mid-1980s when he was covering a school-board meeting for a weekly newspaper in Athens, Ga. When the board announced it was going into closed session, Davis was "escorted" from the meeting.
"It struck me as so anti-democratic that I was just stunned," he said. Even more so when others in his newsroom said that's the way it goes.
Davis calls that an "FOI moment," and predicts one day each of us will have one. "It'll happen. It invariably does."
An institution will have a piece of information that is crucial to something you need to do. You'll go to the county courthouse, city hall or a school district, ask for a record and be denied.
Sadly, Davis said, the typical reaction of most people is to give up. "They sort of shrug their shoulders and walk out. I think it breeds cynicism in government."
But some people who experience that moment take up the fight for freedom of information. Davis said everyone he asks in the FOI movements says his or her involvement started with an FOI moment.
Davis, who is headquartered at the University of Missouri, said the growth of FOI and First Amendment organizations is gratifying: "It's not our doing. It's organic. It's humbling is what it is."
The good news on the FOI front is that New Jersey and Maine this year overhauled their open-government laws from top to bottom, and Tennessee is revamping its law, Davis said. On the negative side, coalition affiliates must defend against "bad legislation that pops up all the time. There's always another exemption around the corner."
That certainly has been the case in our state. When the Washington voters approved an open-records initiative in 1972, there were 10 exemptions that limited what government must disclose. Today there are more than 300.
That could change because of a new "Sunshine Law" that was passed this legislative session. It establishes a committee to review and recommend changes to the exemptions. The Washington Coalition for Open Government was among supporters of the bill, which was requested by Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, and signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat.
I joined the board of the state coalition in the past year and can say its members work hard to support its mission as "an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and defending the people's right to know in matters of public interest and in the conduct of the public's business."
James Neff, investigative-projects editor at The Seattle Times and keynote speaker at the national conference Saturday, re-enforced the bipartisan nature of FOI efforts:
"This is not a matter of red versus blue. Conservatives desire a government that does not exceed its legitimate authority. Liberals desire a government that is accountable and responsive to the needs of the public. But secrecy thwarts both of those desires."
Judging from discussions at the conference, Washington is much better off than most states. Our open-government laws and court rulings are better, as are political leadership, media attention and citizen involvement in these issues.
But none of that can be taken for granted. Most states are seeing new pressure for government secrecy in the name of national security and privacy concerns, especially identity theft. But those concerns must be weighed against the ability of the people to hold government accountable.
It's good to remember what Washington's Legislature wrote in its statement of legislative intent that accompanied passage of this state's Open Meetings and Open Records acts:
"The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created."
Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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