Before signing the Freedom of Information Act into law in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson made it clear to those closest to him that he strongly disliked the legislation. According to Bill Moyers, Mr. Johnson’s press secretary at the time, the president “hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets.” By the time Mr. Johnson actually signed the legislation, however, even the president had to publicly concede FOIA’s importance “in an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.”
FOIA is a check on corruption, waste and government wrongdoing. No wonder politicians and bureaucrats hate it.
Fast-forward to today, and FOIA remains as important — and as derided — as ever. President Barack Obama, who promised “the most transparent administration in history,” has repeatedly, cynically taken the opposite approach to openness. In fact, Mr. Obama’s tribute to Sunshine Week — this week’s nationwide celebration of access to public information — was an order that exempts the White House Office of Administration from FOIA. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
And The Associated Press reported Wednesday that, for the second straight year, the Obama administration set records for censoring government files or denying access to them entirely. “The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents, and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged,” The AP reported.
Government hostility to FOIA hasn’t changed, but the exercise of the law certainly has. Written and passed primarily with press access in mind, nonmedia entities have become FOIA’s biggest defenders.
Media outlets still file plenty of FOIA requests to federal agencies, but thanks to the growth of the Internet, today there are more media outlets than ever before. That competition has left legacy outlets leaner and with fewer resources to use the courts to end Washington’s notorious FOIA obstruction.
As reported by McClatchy, Syracuse University researchers found that media organizations are filing fewer lawsuits challenging Washington secrecy, and that advocacy groups are more likely to sue the government over FOIA violations than the press. Fiscal year 2014 saw 422 FOIA lawsuits filed against the federal government, the most since 2001.
The ultimate purpose of FOIA, then and now, is the promotion of government transparency. As Washington becomes less accountable and less willing to comply with FOIA, it’s more important than ever to drag federal agencies into court. That some nonmedia entities use FOIA as a way to achieve political or self-serving goals is irrelevant. No one person or entity needs to provide a reason to see government documents, whether it’s personal curiosity or a journalism project that will reach millions of people. Public records belong to the public, not to government itself.
Open government is not simply a sales job from a self-interested press. It’s something all Americans should care about. And if we stop caring, government will waste no time slamming doors in our faces.