Chipping Away at the Foundations of our Democratic Institutions by Attacking the Public’s Right to Know

By Emily Manna

Yesterday, more than 30 organizations and individuals sent a declaration condemning threats to openness to the White House and all members of Congress

The declaration, written in support of open government and accountability for Sunshine Week 2018, lists four main concerns that the open government community believe are undermining democratic values and institutions. While the groups acknowledge that they have fought attempts to increase secrecy in every administration, the current administration and Congress present “an unprecedented, systemic endeavor to undermine the basic norms of disclosure, accountability and truthfulness.”

The signatories declare their opposition to:

  • Attacks on Truth and Truth-Tellers
  • Affronts to the Public’s Right to Know
  • Increases in Government Corruption
  • Threats to Constitutional Checks and Balances

Today we focus on affronts to the public’s right to know.  Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy and the best defense against tyranny. Yet at every turn, this administration, enabled by many in Congress, has rejected the public’s right to know in favor of misinformation and secrecy.

This comes as no surprise; even as a candidate Trump showed his disregard for an informed electorate when he refused to release his tax returns, preventing the public from knowing about potential conflicts of interest resulting from the president’s many business interests.  The choice of this White House not to disclose visitor logs similarly prevents the American people from getting a complete picture of who has access and influence in this administration.

But perhaps the most offensive threat to the public’s right to know is the willingness of the president, his spokespeople, and numerous high ranking officials to traffic in “alternative facts” while simultaneously discrediting the news media when it reports accurate information.

The president’s contempt for the public’s right to know has trickled down to many executive branch agencies, as Open The Government reported in Closing Democracy’s Window: The Growing Culture of Secrecy in Washington and the Erosion of the Public’s Right to Know, released this week. Victims of Hurricane Harvey, for example, could not obtain reliable information about toxins in the water because the Environmental Protection Agency not only withheld data, but denied that toxins had anything to do with leaks at chemical plants that were damaged by the storm.

At the Department of Justice, there appears to be an increased tendency to neither confirm nor deny that requested documents exist, empowering officials there to thwart FOIA requests without providing justification. The Department has also reversed course and is blocking access to information on investigations into police misconduct, closing down an important pathway for the public and local officials to demand accountability.

The Department of Homeland Security has seen notable transgressions, such as disappearing data fields and documents disappearing from its FOIA reading room.  The agency has apparently knowingly spread disinformation, wrongly identifying immigrants as gang members and distorting facts on immigration enforcement.

A government that shuts down access to information with complete disregard to the public’s right to know damages its credibility and losses the trust of its citizens. Open The Government and our partners will continue to combat unnecessary secrecy so that we can strengthen our democracy and make our government more accountable.