In the United States, especially in the last few decades of the 20th Century, there has been a growing acknowledgment, and even a grudging respect, for the role of an informed citizenry. And as the voice of the people has taken on enhanced authority and influence in all sectors of society, so has the importance of public access to the information citizens must have to carry out their responsibilities as decision makers in a democratic society.
As we enter the 21st Century, the people’s right to know is increasingly becoming a central social value. There is a growing recognition among many that our First Amendment freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly — depend on the free flow of information to the people.
Unfortunately, shortsighted policymakers and self-interested industries are working to cut off information and weaken this important resource for democracy. If the saying “Information is the Currency of Democracy” has meaning, then the American people are being pick-pocketed. Under the label of “homeland security,” information is being removed, restricted and destroyed resulting in a less informed citizenry that is less able to participate in the government.
Prying information loose from government has always been a key project in the development of this nation’s democratic traditions. What James Madison wrote in 1822 remains just as true today: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and the people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power, which knowledge gives.”
Since 9/11 we have been witnessing a fundamental shift in public access policies and procedures. It is not any one action, but the combination of actions in Washington and at the state level that represent a fundamental erosion of democracy. In the end, the public’s right to know is on the way to being replaced by a very different standard, the “need to know” in which government will be the arbiter of whether an individual warrants access to information. The opportunity for citizens “to arm themselves with power, that knowledge gives,” in Madison’s words, will erode significantly.
Recent policies with the biggest impact on democracy concerns
Passed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the USA PATRIOT Act (or Patriot Act) is probably the biggest policy concern for those interested in democracy. The new law increases the surveillance and investigative powers of law enforcement agencies but reduces protections for civil liberties. There are significant concerns that the law will have a chilling effect on some of our most important freedoms — freedom of speech and expression, and our right to criticize the government. For more information on the Patriot Act click here.
The Internet is a new communication tool with staggering potential to revolutionize the way we interact with our government and the way we view democracy. We are only beginning to utilize this resource for governmental purposes such as providing information to the public, and allowing the public to submit comments and feedback on government plans and activities. For more information on E-government click here.
Homeland Security Policies
Many of those concerned about our the possible loss of democratic rights are most concerned about the policies being put in place to protect us from terrorism. These laws and policies often strip away traditional safeguards or eliminate standard procedures in order to speed up the government’s anti-terrorist activities. Many worry that the new policies go too far and give up too much of what we are fighting to protect in the first place. For more information on secrecy in the name of security click here.
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of the most important and fundamental laws that help preserve and guarantee a fair and open democracy. A number of recent government policies and rules significantly alter how information is handled under FOIA. Open government advocates are concerned that if allowed to unreasonably withhold information from the public, these new policies will undermine our democracy by skewing the public’s perception and reaction to government actions. For information on new restrictions of the Freedom of Information Act click here.