Editorial: Freedom should be free
As we welcome March, we once again welcome Sunshine Week, beginning this Sunday, March 11. Sunshine Week celebrates the Freedom of Information Act.
It coincides with our story this week about how the state of Connecticut is contemplating changes to the law that will allow public officials to both charge fees and limit those seeking this information.
The public deserves to know the details of how and why elected officials and public figures conduct their business and make their decisions. The Freedom of Information Act is a law that gives the right to access information from the government and public agencies. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.
Openness within public entities leads to better communication, stronger scrutiny and progress locally and nationally.
With an inaugural grant from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has continued to support the effort, Sunshine Week was launched by the American Society of News Editors in March 2005. This initiative is celebrated in mid-March each year to coincide with James Madison’s birthday on March 16.
By nature, FOI requests, are annoying to public officials. They are likely viewed by some as a nuisance. At their most innocuous, they take time and create tedious copying or scanning work, carefully redacting that which is confidential. At their worst, they cause further anxiety when information that some might have hoped to keep hidden comes to light.
In short, no one gives a standing ovation when receiving an FOI request. However, they are a powerful tool for private citizens, and journalists as the public’s representatives, who have the right — read that, the right — to obtain and review information that is public.
As is the case with many aspects of life, there will always be someone who abuses something that is generally used fairly. There will be that one person taking advantage of the free coffee while you’re getting your oil changed. There will be that one person who returns a meal after finishing all but the last bite. The one person who returns an item to a store that’s 20 years old with holes in it because it has a no questions asked policy.
And there are people who abuse the FOI process. They belabor, abuse, exhaust, financially drain, and otherwise hurt the rest of us in the process. However, changing the FOI law to punish the many for the transgressions of the few isn’t the answer.
Vexatious, despite the many requirements to prove it, is still a subjective opinion. Someone can repeatedly file FOI requests, with a large scope, for a justifiable reason. Sometimes the reason for filing repeated FOI requests is that a public agency could repeatedly be withholding information. And charging more than $100 to file an appeal after having your request rejected if you have more than one appeal in a year is, as Comptroller Kevin Lembo testified, “misguided and offensive.”
“A person’s ability to seek justice through the state Freedom of Information Commission should not be determined by their capacity to pay,” he said.
We quite agree. There’s a solution and a tweaking to be made to the process that can eliminate or mitigate abusers of public information access. This bill isn’t it.
Information, or fighting for information that’s been denied, shouldn’t cost $125.
We are the constituency. We pay for these agencies and their functions with our taxes. We voted them into office. You shouldn’t have to buy something you already own.
This bill puts the power back in the hands of the already powerful, and takes what little FOI provides from the people.
The cost of that is much more than any fee could possibly impose.