On Tuesday, March 16, freedom of information advocates across the country will say a collective "Happy Birthday" to founding father James Madison, author of the First Amendment. They'll also celebrate national Freedom of Information Day, an annual commemoration of the public's right to know what goes on in government.
In North Carolina, the date will be marked with a new sense of significance, thanks to the recent creation of the N.C. Open Government Coalition. The organization was launched last June in a conference room at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where an exploratory meeting drew an enthusiastic statewide response. Attendees included editors, reporters, lawyers, librarians, media executives, journalism professors, and state and local government officials.
The impetus for this unique assembly? The long answer is that freedom of information is a perpetual concern for anyone who works in the business of keeping government activities on the record and accessible to the public. The short answer is: The Bush administration's penchant for secrecy has made many of these individuals particularly alarmed.
Among this crowd, there's an "overall concern that the openness of government, whether we're talking about meetings or records or whatever, is under fire these days much more than in previous years," says Jim Hefner, general manager of Raleigh's WRAL-TV and a member of the coalition's steering committee. "The current federal administration has been much more reluctant, if you will, to be open with material. I'm personally concerned that that sort of trend will trickle down into state and local government."
To make sure that it doesn't, the coalition, which will hold its first nuts-and-bolts organizational meeting at Elon College on March 22, is preparing to mount a campaign to highlight the importance of maintaining access to the inner workings of public agencies. "Access to government is something that affects all citizens," says News & Observer executive editor Melanie Sill, one of the coalition's key mobilizers. "The work that we in the press do often is seen as just being on behalf of the press. But it's not just a media issue, it's an issue of democracy."
As Hefner suggested, the national political climate does not always value full disclosure as a principle of democracy. From its first months in power, the Bush administration, especially the Ashcroft Justice Department, has made that clear with a series of policy shifts limiting the Freedom of Information Act. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, federal secrecy has ballooned.
But it's far more than these national concerns that has galvanized members of the coalition. After all, it's at the local level that most of their freedom of information battles occur. A county sheriff may refuse to release arrest reports, in violation of the state open records law. Or several members of a town council or board might gather in secret to conduct official business, violating the state open meetings law. Many local news outlets can testify that such incidents are all too common, even when the law is on the side of openness.
"In North Carolina we have a good public records law because many people in office at all levels have been very committed to openness," Sill says. "And you have other people who are just unfamiliar with what the law says and what they're supposed to do. That's probably the biggest category. And then you have a small group that is actually hostile to access. So we think that the coalition can work actively on that middle group, as well as on the smaller group of people who are unresponsive."
One group of public employees--public librarians--is firmly in the openness camp already, notes Ross Holt, immediate past president of the N.C. Library Association and a member of the new coalition's steering committee. "The point of departure for libraries is that an informed populace is necessary for democracy to work," he says. "Being part of an open government coalition is a very natural thing for us." Indeed, librarians and their professional associations have been some of the most vocal opponents of recent government steps to clamp down on public information.
March 16 will be a good day to remember that these latest salvos against official secrecy spring from a long and honorable American tradition. Many generations have come and gone since the days of James Madison, but his counsel on freedom of information remains as relevant as ever. In 1822, he cautioned that "a popular government without popular information, or the means to acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both."
For more on public information laws and resources, see the N.C. Web page maintained by the National Freedom of Information Coalition: www.nfoic.org/web/resource/northcar/ northcar.htm. For details on the N.C. Open Government Coalition, email firstname.lastname@example.org.