For a journalist, receiving a batch of documents requested under open records laws can be better than a birthday or holiday gift. We open those packages with the gusto of Ralphie ripping the wrapping paper to get at his Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story. And the information within those documents can be a more fearsome weapon.
Records are often difficult to get, and now, even more so, since President George W. Bush designated entire categories of federal documents off-limits in the name of "national security." Such broad government secrecy gives Sunshine Week, which runs March 16-22, additional importance in public life. It is intended to raise awareness of open government (or lack thereof), including state open records laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act—known as FOIA.
Under these laws, citizens are entitled to the same public information as that provided to the media. But be prepared to fight. And wait. And wait some more.
The Durham Police Department is notoriously unresponsive, even obstructive, to information requests. As of late January, a local chapter of the League of Women Voters still had not received documents it requested a year ago from the Durham Public Schools Board of Education. Statewide, public utility water usage, including that of bottled water companies, can be released only with permission of the customer.
The Homeland Security Act requires the federal government to limit or withhold data on "critical infrastructure or protected systems" that relate to potential terrorist vulnerabilities—the definition of which is open to broad interpretation. That protected information can include environmental hazards at and around military bases, contents of freight cars and tankers, and reports of accidental spills. Under the act, the feds could hide information about the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility; when Homeland Security officials try to assuage citizens' concerns by saying that NBAF will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, they fail to mention the law is impotent.
FOIA was recently dealt another indignity when Bush, who in December signed into law the creation of a FOIA ombudsman, reversed himself. He didn't fund the position of ombudsman, who would mediate disputes between the feds and the public over FOIA requests. He moved the office from the National Archives and Records Administration, considered to be politically neutral, to the Justice Department, which has historically been hostile to FOIA, and, coincidentally, is charged with defending the federal government when it denies such requests.
In other words, Bush stuck FOIA where the sun don't shine.
A transparent government is essential for democracy. I encourage you to ask for public information, and if necessary, demand it.
The N.C. Open Government Coalition offers excellent guidance for citizens seeking government information. To access North Carolina's open records law, visit The North Carolina General Assembly's Web site. The Freedom of Information Center provides general information concerning public records. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has good information for citizens, as well as journalists. To generate a public records request either for federal or state documents, visit rcfp.org/foi_letter/generate.php.