In recent months, our community has been working to fight off various attempts by agencies to get broad new authorities to withhold information from the public. On Tuesday March 13, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing exploring the government’s legitimate need to protect certain information and the public’s right to know. The Committee’s broad oversight of the government’s efforts to protect sensitive information and the public interest in disclosure of information that is critical to public health and safety is a welcome occurrence, and comes at a critical time.
As testimony presented by Kenneth Bunting, the Executive Director of our coalition partner, the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), clearly outlines, an informed citizenry with access to information that can hold its government accountable is the greatest incentive for our governments to do the right things. Under the type of expansive proposals to withhold information that have popped up in various authorization bills and in bills to improve cybersecurity, the public (and press) would not have access to information that lets us know if our bridges are safe, if our drinking water is uncontaminated, if our homes and schools are at risk are located near unexploded ordinances, etc.
Any effort to give the federal government expanded authority to keep information secret must be carefully constructed. At a minimum, the bill language should include: narrow definitions; a balancing-test consideration of the public interest in disclosure; and a time delimited review process for revisiting how long the nondisclosure protections are needed.