James Madison, the fourth President of the United States and a principal author of the United States Constitution, was born on March 16, 1751 and it is because of his commitment to a balanced government and informed electorate that we celebrate Freedom of Information Day on his birthday. But wait, with such freedom comes responsibility. Are we up to the challenge?
At least, that’s what the history books will tell you. That law was actually repealed by the 89th Congress and replaced with Title 5 of the United States Code, which contains language substantively identical to the Freedom of Information Act, but also contains a great deal of additional regulation over civil service functions and responsibilities.
Hold on, we’re not done yet, though. There have been amendments over the years and they’ve come with some political turmoil. Consider the Privacy Act of 1974, which most importantly gives an individual the right to see what information the government has about them, correct that information if it’s wrong, and sue the government if it is being misused. Opposing the Privacy Act was then federal attorney Antonin Scalia (prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court), President Ford’s Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld, and a deputy named Dick Cheney. They convinced President Ford to veto the bill, but could not stop Congress from overriding the veto.
They weren’t done. In 1976 (same President, slightly different Congress) what was laughably referred to as the Government in the Sunshine Act (it was the 70s, forgive them), added some restrictions to the act. Most notably among them, information regarding matters of national defense and preventing federal agencies from speaking regarding active court cases. Suddenly, that picture of the federal government started having huge holes cut from it.
President Reagan limited the act even further, using Executive Order to allow government to hide pretty much anything it wanted under that “national defense” clause. President Clinton vacated that order in 1995, and went on to issue Executive Orders of his own to allow for the release of documents older than 25 years old that were of “historical interest.” President Clinton also oversaw the Electronic Freedom of Information Act in 1996, requiring federal agencies to make documents available electronically (which is why federal websites are so important).
There were some smaller Executive Orders here and there, but the next major change came as part of the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2007. Among other things, the act redefines what qualifies as a member of the news media (includes bloggers not directly associated with a traditional news outlet), and establishes the Office of Government Information Services to mediate claims against federal agencies.
Whew. Being an “open” government isn’t quite so easy, is it?
And therein is the challenge. Not only does government have a responsibility to be open about what it’s doing, what information is being collected and for what purposes (we’ve been arguing about the whole cell phone thing for how long now?), we have a responsibility with regard to what we do with that information.
Specifically this: we have to ask for the information.
Freedom of Information merely means that government agencies have to provide certain information when it is requested. They don’t have to mail it to your door. No one is going to sit down and make you read it. You have to ask.
And both sides get it wrong more than 60% of the time, according to studies released last year regarding information integrity.
The unintended result of so many people having what is essentially quick and easy access to so much information is that our news and information sources are now flooded with misinformation more than anything that is actually factual and helpful. Even our most trusted news sources have been caught in outright lies, and more frequently are guilty of taking raw information gleaned from federal sources and twisting that in ways never intended.
When we allow others to interpret information for us, it becomes very much like the composite image we choose for today’s PotD: challenging to know exactly what we’re seeing. Was this a single picture from one event? How many people are actually in the picture? Is anything important being omitted in the “redacted” portions of the image? How does one tell what is real and what is reflection? What is that child eating?
Think of information as though it were a basket of fruit. On one side, the government has its basket with a small, carefully lettered sign that says, “Free for the taking.” No one takes the fruit, though, because it hasn’t been peeled or washed and would just be too much trouble to prepare. People on that side of the street complain about being hungry but ignore the basket of fruit completely because it’s just too much trouble.
On the other side of the street are fruit vendors. They take the free fruit from the government basket, wash it, peel it, slice it, and make it look attractive on a plate. As a result, people flock to that side of the street to consume their fruit. There’s just one problem: some of it is poison. [Remember, Maleficent dealt in fruit, also, much to Snow White’s demise.] But even knowing that some of the fruit is poison, people still consume as much of it as possible and consider themselves well fed.
We do exactly the same with information. We consider the raw sources too difficult, so we let someone else do the parsing for us, knowing that a great deal of what we read is “poisoned” with editorial bias, but we consume as much as we can and consider ourselves informed.
I’m fairly certain that if James Madison were alive today, in addition to being totally freaked out by technology and vehicles that move without visible means of propulsion, he would encourage, if not demand, us to take a more active and deliberate role in how we receive critical information from and about our government. We don’t have to take someone else’s word. Proposed legislation is typically available online within hours of it being presented and given a bill number. Verbatim transcripts, and in some cases video, of committee hearings are available online as well.
The information is there, and it’s free. Now, what are you going to do with it?