The public’s right to know is under attack

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

As the son of a printer from Montpelier, I come by my interest in press freedom honestly.

And as a Vermonter I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where our culture nourishes the love of liberty and freedom of speech, which is why we held out joining the Union until the Bill of Rights was ratified.

These have been tough times for the public's right to know and for the Congress's duty to know what the government is doing.

I am sorry to report that there has been erosion on both of those fronts. Government secrecy is being ratcheted up to levels unseen in recent times.

I have said before that the First Amendment would have trouble today if it were proposed as a constitutional amendment.

Sadly, this rings true in a disturbing new survey, commissioned by the Knight Foundation, which found that 36 percent of 110,000 students asked believe that newspapers should have to get “government approval” of news articles before they are published.

Freedom of speech and of the press is one of the magnificent bequests of earlier Americans to the generations that follow.

These rights are a fragile gift, requiring nurturing and protection by each new generation.

The enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, or “FOIA,” was a watershed moment for democracy, but this bulwark of open government has been under assault.

When the public is shut out, bad things happen.

Just ask Linda and Mike Raymond who live in Woburn, Mass., a blue-collar suburb of Boston best known as the setting for the book and film, “A Civil Action.” After rates of leukemia spiked upward, local industries were sued in the 1980s for polluting the area's water.

Four years ago the Raymonds discovered that the city's landfill, dormant for 15 years, was bustling with truck traffic.

Linda Raymond contacted Woburn officials, but they stonewalled her. The Raymonds relied on the state FOIA law to get answers. They educated the community and held public officials accountable.

The Raymonds' triumph spotlights the power of and the need for government sunshine laws.

After 9/11, we saw the single greatest rollback of FOIA in history tucked into the charter for the Department of Homeland Security.

This provision created an opportunity for big polluters or other offenders to hide mistakes from public view just by stamping 'critical infrastructure information' at the top of the page when they submit information to the Department.

I am fighting to repeal this law and replace it with a reasonable compromise called the Restore FOIA Act, which would protect both sensitive information and the public's right to know.

I will introduce this bill this month, during Sunshine Week.

I am also working with Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, to enact a bill called the Open Government Act.

Our bill is a designed to update FOIA and improve the timely processing of FOIA requests by federal agencies.

The Constitution reflects the Founders' confidence in open government. Our First Amendment protections and the public's right to know, backed by FOIA, are cornerstones of our democracy, guaranteeing a free flow of information that delivers on the promise of a government of, by, and for the people.

No generation can afford to take these protections for granted, because they can quickly and easily be taken away.

And once gone, they are difficult to get back.

The recent damage done to FOIA will take great effort to undo.

We have inherited a marvelous legacy. I hope it can always be said that each generation of Americans did all that it could to entrust the public's right to know to the next generation of Americans.

Sen. Leahy's commentary was provided by The Associated Press.

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