‘Knowledge will forever govern ignorance’

An alert reader politely took me to task for this past Sunday’s column exploring the tension between one’s right to know and need to know.

“I read your latest rant on the right to know this morning; it seems to be a continuing burr under your saddle,” observed Patrick Sharp of Las Vegas. “I went to my copy of the Constitution and carefully searched for the ‘right to know.’ The Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments, list many rights but I couldn’t find the right to know. Where is it?”

He’s right. It is not there in so many words. But as people often do when trying to determine what a given law really means to accomplish, we can look at the “legislative intent.” Listen to the words of those who articulated the freedoms of speech and press.

Take, for example, John Adams’ Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law in 1765.

“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge …” wrote America’s first vice president and second president. “(T)hey have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.”

If we don’t know what they are up to, how can we decide when it is time to throw the bums out?

In his farewell address in 1796, President George Washington implored, “Promote then as an object of primary importance, Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

Then there are the words of the man who drafted the First Amendment.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance,” said James Madison, “and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

The author of our Declaration of Independence and third president weighed in, too.

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day,” said Thomas Jefferson.

Sounds like their intent was to spread knowledge as widely as possible for noble purposes.

But Mr. Sharp offers a good point when he says “there is no absolute right to know.” He noted military and trade secrets as specific examples.

“Don’t rail about openness, rather complain that those making the judgments about secrecy aren’t doing so with the best interest of the public at heart,” Mr. Sharp aptly and presciently argued. “There are legitimate needs for secrecy in some aspects of the public’s business. There is no absolute right to know everything.

“Take this for what you paid for it; I’m sure you won’t agree but I can at least plant a seed. Keep up the good work.”

I don’t think I said absolute right to know, but, yes, let us complain about those making the judgments about secrecy.

The day after we received Mr. Sharp’s missive, the Review-Journal published an Associated Press story about accidents at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Erwin, Tenn.

The report began: “A three-year veil of secrecy in the name of national security was used to keep the public in the dark about the handling of highly enriched uranium at a nuclear fuel processing plant, including a leak that could have caused a deadly, uncontrolled nuclear reaction.”

It is no secret what the plant does or where it is located, or that it has highly enriched uranium. Any terrorist worth his salt can readily find this out.

What rationale can be divined that would argue for keeping serious accidents inside the plant from some hypothetical enemy, foreign or domestic? Unless, of course, the “enemy” are nearby residents who might’ve become a bit alarmed at the prospect of an “uncontrolled nuclear reaction.”

Let the ranting and the railing begin.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.

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