The National Freedom of Information (FOI) Coalition Summit, organized by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MN COGI), took place at the Minneapolis Marriot City Center on June 5-6. Among the 70 attendees were members of various nonprofit freedom of information centers from across the nation, professors of journalism from several universities, and members of the media from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists. The overall theme of the four panel discussions on FOI was that information should be open to the public, including those who are not members of the media.
What does the public’s right to open government mean, and is the government as transparent as it should be? What kind of information is considered public? What are the implications of this for those who may not want information like past criminal or health records visible for all to see? What are the implications of FOI for journalists and the media, especially with technology and the access of information expanding in an increasingly globalized world?
Other topics included financial transparency, FOI as civics education, and FOI and infrastructure.
Speakers who had reported on the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse discussed how the public was informed about Minnesota’s infrastructural issues by the use of FOI and what the challenges have been in obtaining easy, open, and accurate access to databases containing information on other infrastructural weaknesses in Minnesota and other states.
A roundtable conversation addressed how each state is doing with its FOI issues. An attendee from Wyoming explained that her state is struggling with a law that keeps the name of a person charged with sex abuse confidential because of the possibility of identity theft. “But judges are using this as an excuse to close proceedings,” she said.
Another attendee said that Delaware “has real problems with openness. It’s the 44th open state” in the nation. Yet another attendee said Virginia has had issues with publishing information such as social security numbers. Several attendees said that the government has used identity theft as the main reason for not allowing public information to be freely accessible.
Richard J. H. Varn, the summit’s opening speaker and director of the Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access, disagreed with the identity theft argument. “The problem with identity theft is not with public access,” he said. “Identity theft will flourish, prosper, and grow even with freedom of information restricted.” He argued that those who shut down public records to “protect from identity theft” are actually doing so to “prevent others from knowing to whom they’re connected.”
Even if information is restricted, every citizen’s name and address is public information, Varn said. “We can’t effectively hide social security numbers, your mother’s maiden name, or your birthday. Trying to hide these things doesn’t prevent identity theft, fraud, and crime.” Even hospital information is a public record, according to Varn. Not to say that this information should all be public, but if officials, the media, or representatives of the public needed such information, they would be able to find it.
Varn believes that there aren’t enough “designated people in government enforcing public access of records.”
A public record is information that has been “filed or recorded by local, state, federal or other government agencies, such as corporate and property records…even though public records are indeed “public”, their accessibility is not always simple, free or easy,” according to the Sunshine Review, a website advocating more transparency..
After the Watergate scandal, sunshine laws were passed by Congress in order to increase public access to government records. These laws may vary slightly by state, but they protect the public’s right to accessing information filed by the government. According to Minnesota Statute 13.03(a), a “person shall be permitted to inspect and copy public government data.” Minnesota’s Sunshine law says anyone may request public records and can have the data explained to them if they don’t understand it.
Also discussed at the FOI summit was the issue of whether an ex-felon’s past criminal records should be visible to the public after rehabilitation or if these records should be expunged (erased and hidden from the public). Most attendees agreed with Varn that these records should be available to the public because “justice can’t be administered with no access to public information.” However, such a record shouldn’t prevent someone from getting employment after rehabilitation, said Varn. “We should focus on the fact that the information is being restricted,” rather than “a fact that a person was a felon ten years ago.”
Leona Carlson, a Hennepin County librarian and attendee of the summit believes the FOI in Minnesota is sometimes a cumbersome process. “You have to go through a hard process to get information accessible,” she said. Speaking about her experiences with government documents as a librarian, Carlson said that these documents used to be put out by the government easily, but now paper documents are rare, even at the library. “I can say that maybe one library has paper government documents now,” she said.
Still, Minnesota ranked as the 15th most transparent state in the nation in a 2008 study conducted by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit organization that has collaborated with the National Freedom of Information Coalition to investigate the strength and efficiency of every state’s FOI laws. Minnesota is known to have a very politically active population evidenced by the consistent high voter turnout with almost no evidence of voter fraud, according to the Minnesota Project on Sunshine Review.
Lolla Mohammed Nur (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.
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