Happy Freedom of Information Day! This day may seem like it has no relevance to you, but this holiday is actually very important. Let me tell you why.
James Madison Jr., the fourth president of the United States of America, was a political theorist, American statesman and nicknamed the “Father of the Constitution.” As he was drafting the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights, he was the loudest voice of the time for ensuring that the government of the newly formed nation held no secrets from the people it served.
Freedom of Information Day is dedicated to that very concept, with the Freedom of Information Act’s being enacted on July 4, 1966, and coming into effect a year from that date. It declared that every person has the right to get information from federal agency records that are not protected by one of nine exemptions, or special law enforcement record exclusions. This put into law the very concepts that James Madison had held so dear, and ensured that the citizens of the United States were able to obtain that information to which they were entitled.
All across the country, Freedom of Information Day is celebrated on Madison’s birthday to celebrate the freedoms he worked for.
For a journalist, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is how we get information out to you, the public. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to tell you details about court cases, public employees’ salaries, what is said at council meetings, etc. We can even “FOIA” email records from public officials, including university presidents.
And it’s not just journalists who have the power to request this kind of information. The every day American citizen can “FOIA” almost anything he’d like to see/know.
As mentioned above, there are some exemptions and exclusions, including information that may threaten national security, medical records, and trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged. Some of the rules about requesting information may also vary from state to state.
But one thing remains the same: being able to know what our government is doing and spending money on is important from the federal level all the way down to the tiniest of villages.
When politicians say they want to suppress or silence the media, they are taking away the knowledge of the American citizens. Without us, the public would have to go seeking this information themselves. Then the politicians would want to take away the power of the people, and isn’t the people’s having power the whole point of democracy?
Maintaining a free press and being allowed to be a critical and objective observer of the government’s activities is a way for everyone to keep everybody else in check. Remember those checks and balances we all learned about in school? Well, I think the press plays a roll in keeping everything in balance.
Without us, John Smith who works down at the local factory, would have to take an hour out of his day to go down to the courthouse to see how much prison time the arsonist, who burned his neighbor’s house down, was given by the judge, if, in this hypothetical universe, John Smith was even allowed to be an observer in the court room. With the media and the freedom of information, we can go down to the courthouse (or wherever) for you and you can read or watch what happened on social media as is happens.
Keeping the press free and government and public entities transparent is how we can keep corruption and sneakiness at bay. Of course, the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t solve all our problems. There are still probably shady things that happen. But nonetheless, this day is an important part about being a “free” American.
The other exemptions and general information about filing a request for information can be found on www.foia.gov.
Staff writer Alexandra Newman contributes a free-wheeling, spunky, and sometimes glittery column on a monthly basis or less often when she just can’t think of anything to write about. You can contact her by email at [email protected] or by phone at 937-538-4825.