Wolf: The History of Freedom of Information Law | Columns
On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the federal Freedom of Information Act. According to Bill Moyers, Johnson’s publicist,
“LBJ had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of open government, hated the idea of journalists rummaging through government cupboards, hated them questioning the official view of reality.
Sadly, in 2022, many elected officials feel the same way about open government as Lyndon Johnson. Understanding the history of the Freedom of Information Act is important, as is the ongoing fight for open government today.
In 1952, John Moss was elected to represent the Sacramento, California area in Congress. While serving in Congress, Moss requested agency records and was denied. Journalists complained to Moss that they also had difficulty obtaining information from government officials. In 1954 Moss introduced legislation to make government records available to the public. For ten years as chairman of the subcommittee on government information, Moss held hearings and published reports on government secrecy and advocated for that information to be made publicly available.
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The Government Information Subcommittee noted numerous instances of federal agencies refusing to release information, such as:
• the National Science Foundation stating that it would not be in the “public interest” to disclose competing cost estimates submitted by bidders for the award of a multi-million dollar project;
• the Navy ruled that the telephone directories fell into the category of “internal management” information and could not be distributed;
• Many federal agencies have refused to release minutes showing votes taken on contract awards.
Thanks to the efforts of Congressmen Moss, all of the above and more are now available to the public. Every federal agency that testified in hearings for the Freedom of Information Act opposed it. Attempts were made to withhold funding and abolish Moss’ committee. It took twelve long years to push Congress to pass it and three presidents to sign it into law, but on July 4, 1966, the Freedom of Information Act became law. On the 56th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, we owe a debt of gratitude to John Moss for his many years of fighting for the public’s right to know what government officials are doing.
New York State has its own Freedom of Information Act (FOIL), which too often government officials are slow to respond to or refuse to comply with. There are no consequences for government officials who do not comply with the law and there is no entity the public can turn to that has the power to enforce the law. New York’s open government laws need reform and we need an elected official like John Moss with the tenacity to make it happen.
Paul Wolf is chair of the New York Coalition for Open Government.