ACLU of Massachusetts Legislative Counsel Gavi Wolfe wrote the following guest blog.
Pop quiz: What little-known holiday, being celebrated across the world today, honors essential freedoms central to a healthy democracy? Why, it’s International Right to Know Day, of course!
Ok, so you’ve never heard of it.
Despite that minor detail, its core concept–freedom of information–affects the everyday lives of ordinary Americans. It’s the basic notion that we have the right to find out about the workings of our government–how well it’s working (and how it might be improved), whether the Big Dig was built safely, how government jobs and contracts are handed out, whether we’re using “enhanced interrogation techniques” that run afoul of the Constitution, or how police are trained to respond to suspicious birdwatchers.
The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and its state counterpart, the Massachusetts public records law, are mainstays of public interest advocacy and investigatory journalism, from Globe Spotlight Team special reports to Herald gotcha gimmicks.
Unfortunately, the Massachusetts public record law is mightily in need of a tune-up. In practice, even when information is supposed to be public, people often face major obstacles to obtaining it. Agencies don’t always treat public records requests seriously; they know they will likely face no consequences for withholding information. And when an agency does respond, the law allows them to charge an arm and a leg for copies and basic information. The stories are legion of agencies charging prohibitive fees for information that is of concern to the public, fees that few requestors can hope to pay.
So, what’s a freedom-of-information-loving International Right to Know Day celebrant to do? Clamor for reform!
A pair of bills filed by state senator Jamie Eldridge and state representative Antonio Cabral point in the right direction. To turn the public records law–a good law in concept–into a meaningful law in practice, their legislation would do three exceedingly helpful things:
First, it would make records routinely available in electronic form. Put the info online and save everyone the headache… Send it as a PDF to the person who requested it and save agency staff time making copies, save money, and save the planet at the same time.
Second, it would lower the fees for records. It makes no sense to charge $.50 per printed page. The statute even allows agencies to charge a buck a page for some kinds of records, a fee that would make your local copy shop blush.
Finally, the bill would bring Massachusetts in line with the 2/3 of states and the federal government by letting courts award attorney fees when an agency unreasonably denies access to public records. If the keepers of public information in the Commonwealth are reluctant to share it with… the public!… then it’s clear they could use the same incentive as all those other jurisdictions.
This past weekend, more than 20 local newspapers published a joint editorial in favor of these reforms. From the Cape to North Adams, from Lawrence to Springfield, their message: Let freedom (of information) ring!
So, in honor of International Right to Know Day, go file your own public records request, or add your voice to the choir in favor of putting public information back in the hands of the public, where it belongs.
Maybe next IRK Day we’ll have a better law to celebrate.