Magazine article Information Today

Freedom of Information?

Magazine article Information Today

Freedom of Information?

Article excerpt

Section 105 of the Copyright Act states that most works created by the U.S. government are not subject to copyright and are automatically in the public domain. The First Amendment establishes not only a right to freedom of speech, but also freedom of access to information in support of speech. These provisions of the law are based upon the principle that citizens of the U.S. are the "owners" of government information. "We the People" established the government as our representatives, and, as goes the reasoning, we are therefore entitled to use the products of its construction.

History has told us, however, that while the government may not be able to copyright much of its information, there are a number of times and circumstances when the government protects its information by simply not making it available. The myriad of reasons expressed for this protection has included issues of privacy, prevention of criminal activities, and concerns for national security. The abuses of the McCarthy era, civil rights battles, and the Vietnam War led to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which provides citizens with a presumptive right to the release of government documents, subject to only limited exemptions.

$400,000 Request

The act has been lauded for shining light into previously dingy government file cabinets and datafiles. However, there often remains a tension between those who seek this information and those within the government who, for good or ill reasons, prefer that it remain locked away. Two years ago, an effort by the city of Chicago to obtain federal firearm records was quashed by a funding restriction buried in a congressional appropriations act. In February 2005, a public interest group sought Justice Department records related to post-9/11 detainees. The department indicated that obtaining the records would cost the group nearly $400,000 in advance. FOIA permits fees to be charged, but the amount being request raised allegations of government stonewalling.

FOIA was originally enacted in 1966 and has been updated many times, most recently to include electronic documents and datafiles as well as material related to WWII war crimes investigations. The act, however, is not unlimited, and many records remain legitimately beyond the scope of its coverage.

Disclosure Required, Except ...

FOIA applies to all federal executive departments, independent agencies, the military, and government corporations. Not included are the federal courts; state governments and agencies; and, interestingly, Congress and its bodies. (Many states have FOIA and similar open records laws applying to their respective state governments.) Additionally, FOIA does not generally distinguish between information requests for commercial purposes and requests for nonprofit and research purposes.

Freedom of information does not mean that information is free, however, as FOIA allows agencies to charge search and duplication fees. The fees are intended to recover only the "direct costs" of the document search and review process and document duplication. Fees are supposed to be uniform among all agencies and are to be based on "reasonable standard charges." If the fee is determined to exceed $250, the agency may require payment in advance. …

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