Freedom of Information and the Right to Know: The Origins and Applications of the Freedom of Information Act

Freedom of Information and the Right to Know: The Origins and Applications of the Freedom of Information Act

Freedom of Information and the Right to Know: The Origins and Applications of the Freedom of Information Act

Freedom of Information and the Right to Know: The Origins and Applications of the Freedom of Information Act

Synopsis

This examination of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) traces the American origins of the belief that the citizens of a democracy have a natural right to know about the workings of their government. Despite continuing Executive opposition, today's federal bureaucracy works effectively with the FOIA requester community to guarantee an informed citizenry and an open government.

Excerpt

The American origins of a citizen's "right to know" derive from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, where a dauntless press struggled to circumvent the official prohibition on reporting the actions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Members of the British press who violated this ban were fined and many were imprisoned, to be released only after they swore to cease and desist from such radical activities.

In the American colonies, the campaigns for the people's right to know about the workings of their government paralleled those waged in England and were a natural corollary of the demand for free expression. The British associated an informed citizenry with an elite class; however, the American colonists developed a more expansive notion of a simple freeholder or taxpayer citizenship and a more broadly based political participation. Nonetheless, colonial governments showed the same hostility toward the notion of the common citizen's right to know as did the English Parliament.

In 1671, in correspondence to his lords and commissioneers, Governor Berkeley of Virginia expressed the common attitude of colonial officials: "I thank God, we have no free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them, and libels against the government. God keep us from both."

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