Happy 51st birthday, FOIA – The Register-Guard

The Freedom of Information Act turned 51 this week, which is cause for celebration. The act — signed into law on July 4, 1966 — gives not just journalists but all citizens the right to access information about the federal government as it conducts the people’s business. (Oregon has its own public records law, enacted in 1973, that covers state and local governments.)

There have been attempts over the years to weaken, or even kill, the Freedom of Information Act — which has often resulted in information being made public that was embarrassing to people in power.

Democrats and Republicans both have a mixed record when it comes to supporting the Act; relishing its use when it brings to light information about the opposing party, not so much when it comes to their own party.

The Obama administration had a reputation for foot-dragging when confronted with a FOIA request. But it also released an unprecedented amount of information to the public and strengthened the Act with new provisions, including the presumption that government information is public unless it meets one of nine specific grounds for exemptions, such as national defense information that’s been properly classified under an executive order. (The White House itself is not subject to the act.)

Print, television, radio and online media stories produced with information obtained under the FOIA have run the gamut from government spying on citizens to misuse of post-9/11 funds and Medicaid bungling.

They include stories of corruption and incompetence and misuse of taxpayer money that resulted in reforms.

Most importantly, the Act ensures that the people of the United States have the right and ability to know what is being done in their name.

At a time when some are arguing for more restrictions on coverage of the government, the climate is ripe for new assaults on the FOIA. They should be resisted. The Freedom of Information Act is as important today as it was when Lyndon Johnson signed it. It is a guarantee that the federal government remains accountable to the people it serves.


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