Sunshine Week: The importance of FOIA in the digital age

By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was designed to be the portal by which the average citizen can be the watchdog of their own government, but as we mark this Sunshine Week it has become harder and harder to extract documents from our politicians and their offices.

Launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and coordinated in partnership with the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week is an effort to remind people that freedom of information isn’t simply for the press.

Sunshine-Week“It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels,” says the website recognizing the cause, held annually in the third week of March. “It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power.”

Here in Illinois, however, that abuse of power continues unabated by the very legislature that enacted the state’s FOIA laws in the first place.

The Associated Press reported this week that, “Denial letters on behalf of Illinois’ top Democratic and Republican lawmakers said, among other things, that releasing the records could amount to a ‘clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy’ for individuals who contacted lawmakers without expecting their names to appear in the news media.”

Just last year, a local state representative spearheaded legislation to move the publication of public notices online, a policy which has sputtered across the nation as bodies of government fail to keep up with the demands of publication. In Illinois alone, a study of 750 bodies of local government showed that only 49 percent of them maintained any kind of website in the first place, and the ones that exist are rarely up-to-date. How could we expect them to provide the notices crucial to an honest and open government when they can’t even provide their hours of operation via a Google search?

Rep. Joe Sosnowski,  R-Belvidere, who submitted the boilerplate GOP legislation that has been tried and shot down in multiple states, explained at the time: “Just trying to move us into the 20th century. Internet has been around for a while. Maybe next year we can work on the 21st.”

The implication of Sosnowski’s message was clear: newspapers are a 19th-century idea and no longer suited to providing the residents of a city, county, state or country with the vital information they need to keep tabs on their government.

Of course, such a premise would see us ignore the work of The Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovering the Watergate scandal, or the Boston Globe pulling back the curtain on the Catholic Church’s derelict reaction to the sexual abuse and rape of minors over decades, just to name a couple high-profile instances. Both of these stories were broken by newspapers in the 20th century. In fact, the latter is still making waves in the 21st century with the film Spotlight, detailing the Globe’s work, taking home the Oscar for Best Picture just a few weeks ago.

Maybe Rep. Sosnowski and the countless other GOP legislators across the U.S., in their rush to claim public notices should no longer belong to the public, missed those stories and all the other valuable work newspapers have done since the calendars rolled into 1901. Or maybe they don’t want newspapers doing any work at all, as these misleading and misguided laws would instead entrust publishing of these notices solely to the bodies of government who issue them.

The standard claim that accompanies the yearly tradition of introducing these bills is that not only would ceasing the print of public notices in newspapers be a cost-savings for the governments, but that it would somehow provide more access and a more open line for the citizenry to engage their political representatives.

Both of these ideas are laughable, as the first implies that there is no additional cost to maintain individual web databases for the nearly 7,000 bodies of government across the state to publish these notices (and remember, nearly 50 percent of them don’t have websites in the first place); the second assumes that the government is willing to part with this information willingly and in due time without someone watching over them.

This also ignores the fact that the newspaper industry in this state already maintains and publishes all public notices in an easily searchable database: PublicNoticeIllinois.com.

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Keeping with the practices of a 21st century newspaper, and wanting to see just how dedicated to an open government our local legislator was, this paper submitted a FOI request last February, seeking emails from Rep. Sosnowski’s office related to House Bill 261, including any emails from a personal Gmail account that the representative has previously listed on the Assembly’s website as one for official government business.

That request was denied by the Illinois House of Representatives for myriad reasons, many of them centered around now established precedents that persons should be able to engage with their representatives without fear of those communications being published.

One can understand Average Jane/Joe writing their representative about a personal concern not wanting that information out there, though what any respectable news outlet would do with such information is beyond me. As for the PACs and special interest groups who drive this kind of legislation, those communications should be available to be seen by the public, allowing citizens to decide whether or not their politicians are representing them in an ethical and prudent manner.

Truth be told, I’ve had more luck with foreign government offices fulfilling FOI requests than I have ever had with any domestic body. Unlike here in the U.S. their first impulse is to work with requesters in order to provide the information they seek. That thought would send shudders down the spine of the legal teams here in Illinois, and around the country, who proactively seek to subvert FOIA at every step and increase their government billings.

Given then that state of deny, deny, deny by our government bodies, what is the purpose of FOIA in the digital age? In a state where the governor is allowed to conduct his daily business without showing the citizens his schedule; in a state where both parties summarily deny FOI requests for information related to impactful legislation; in a state where the government could hardly claim to be doing its job at all, what is the role of the watchdog laws if no one is allowed to use them?

FOIA is crucial, and the law should be respected not only by the citizens but by the politicians who put it into action. Instead of subverting the law at every step, they should embrace the law as a reason and means to conduct their business ethically, with the thought in mind that the truth may in fact see the light of day.

Closed door meetings and denials for information are now the norm. Lawyers for federal representatives, state legislators, city councils and county boards can rely on the “unduly burdensome” claim for any FOI request they don’t wish to fulfill. The only way to correct that is for every day citizens, and not just those of us who operate in the fourth estate, to demand their politicians abide by FOIA and open meetings laws, ones that they themselves have enacted.

Issac Guerrero, a reporter at the Register Star, wrote Sunday about a thought experiment he was conducting: he submitted FOI requests with each of our seven local legislators, seeking emails and daily calendars from their offices for just a single week. Knowing firsthand what to expect from the powers that be in Springfield, I can’t imagine that the constituency will be impressed with the results.

This Sunshine Week, you should try it for yourself. Pick a senator, or a county board chairman, or your local city councilman. File a FOI request; the details on how to do so should be easily accessible on their (surely) well-maintained website. Wait a few days and see what happens. If you asked for anything that may shed a light on the workings of government that may be less than savory, odds are you will be denied.

The reasons will vary – it seems at times that the lawyers downstate have a cut-and-paste list of denial causes, while those closer to home will stick to the fallback undue burden to save time – but the results will remain the same: politicians and their handlers don’t want to abide by the laws they’ve created to protect citizens and ensure ethical practices.

Those results will never change unless more and more people engage and demand an open and transparent government. These people work for us, after all, and FOIA – a 20th-century idea ever more relevant in the 21st – is our window into that workplace. Take time this Sunshine Week to remind them they work for you, and you have the right to demand they show their work.

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