First Five: Free speech and freedom of the press need freedom of information – West Central Tribune
“The right to speak and the right to print, without the right to know, are pretty empty.”
These are the words of Harold Cross, author of “The People’s Right to Know”, a book widely regarded as an inspiration to the
passed by Congress in 1967.
The FOIA—and its state-level counterparts—guarantees us the right to request records from any government agency, allowing the public to oversee government activities. This not only enhances our exercise of the rights to free speech and freedom of the press (as well as the other three freedoms – religion, assembly and petition), but also directly benefits society by potentially exposing wasteful, government abuse and corruption.
While many view the FOIA as a federal law that journalists can use in their role as watchdogs of government activity, access to records provides us all with an ongoing benefit.
The journalists of
, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned in 2018 over corruption allegations. A blog associated with the Times also used the FOIA to learn that the
on foreign objects such as glass, a rubber glove and an insect found in hot dogs sold to the public. (I hear some of you say, “Actually, I’d rather not know.”)
Locally, The Associated Press used FOIA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to determine that
. This FOIA request brought the matter to the attention of residents in these 122 communities, allowing them to take action to protect themselves and their homes from the risk of flooding and resulting in repairs if needed.
But it’s not just journalists who use FOIA. Ordinary people –
– use the law wisely. In 2019,
to learn that the two white police officers at their majority-minority school had each been the subject of significant misconduct complaints, including allegations of use of force, arbitrary arrests and verbal abuse, often against people of color . The students then used this information to demand the removal of the police from their public schools.
Other Gen Zers have used their digital skills to access and analyze public records, especially large datasets, through technology.
Jack Sweeney, a freshman at the University of Central Florida, used publicly available flight information to track SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s private jet, which he later reported via Twitter @ElonJet. As Russian forces invaded Ukraine,
On a larger scale, FOIA requesters should applaud
. Gumshoe is an artificial intelligence tool that sorts large amounts of information. This is more necessary than ever given the explosion of government-created information each year and the hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of text one can receive through a public records request. The Gumshoe team has already received funding, including a $200,000 grant from the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation to develop the product for wide distribution.
You don’t have to be a journalist or a computer genius to use public records laws — and certainly not to benefit from their use. That’s why we should all celebrate Sunshine Week and public records throughout the year.
Kevin Goldberg is a Freedom Forum First Amendment expert.
on First Amendment questions produced by The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan nonprofit founded by Al Neuharth. First Five is an effort to educate citizens about the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.