A few days ago, a Facebook (and actual) friend of mine asked what I thought about a story and photo showing the Pacific Ocean irradiated from Japan to Hawaii as a result of the nuclear “incident” caused by the devastating tsunami two years ago this month. According to the article posted by “A Sheep No More,” it’s not just the entire Pacific Ocean that’s gone nuclear, and residents of the West Coast should avoid consuming or contacting: all water (including rain and snow), all seafood, all produce, all meat, and all dairy products.
The Facebook comments basically fell into four categories:
1) It’s not only true, it’s probably worse, and our fear-mongering government, media and corporations are trying to cover it up by raising the standard for “safe” levels of radioactivity and blacking out news coverage.
2) If you believe #1 you’re a conspiracy theorist; oceanic cesium really hasn’t remained at 10,000 times safe levels except in the minds of misinformed wingnuts.
3) I live in California, I can’t eat anything, I can’t drink anything, and I can’t move anywhere. Besides, where in the world is *not* radioactive?
4) Will I grow three heads?
Here’s what I told my friend:
“Eat consciously and fight for open government.”
The week that just ended — March 10-16 — is National Freedom of Information Week in the United States, the final day (National FOI Day) chosen to commemorate the birthday of James Madison (3/16/1751-6/28/1836) — fourth President of the United States and spiritual father of the First Amendment. Ironically, Madison thought this amendment (and the rest of the Bill of Rights) unnecessary, saying it protected against powers the new federal government didn’t have and was self-evident anyway. Nonetheless, he became one of its strongest advocates.
National FOI Week (or “Sunshine Week” after a famous quote by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who called “sunshine … the best disinfectant” against government secrecy) is celebrated by open-government advocates and invariably the occasion for numerous reports and report cards on how much “sunshine” can be found in state and local governments and federal agencies, the latter subject to the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (5 U.S.C. Sec. 552). Since then, many states and cities have enacted their own public records acts, open meeting laws, and “sunshine ordinances.”
Well, the report cards are in, and fairly in agreement. The national FOI weather: partially sunny but still gloomy.
National Outlook: Cloudy with scattered sunlight
The Obama administration has taken “baby steps” toward keeping its commitment to make the federal government more transparent, according to a report released this week by OpenTheGovernment.org.
The Huffington Post reported that “while the study commended the administration on taking the ‘first steps toward addressing critical issues and meeting the larger goals,’ OpenTheGovernment.org said in its press release that it considered progress still to be very slow. ‘Progress toward even its own interim goals has been far less dramatic and even halting in some respects.’”
Still, the report commended the White House for making a good effort at least, saying “the government met the letter of its commitment in 19 of the 25” goals it set just 14 months after setting them. That’s way better than anyone ever said about the Bush administration.
The independent, non-governmental National Security Archive, on the other hand, took a different look and found much less to like.
“A clear majority of federal agencies have failed to update their Freedom of Information Act regulations to comply either with Congress’s changes to the law in 2007 or President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s changes to the policy in 2009,” according to its website. Its government-wide audit “found that 53 out of 100 agencies did not change their regulations to meet the requirements Congress put into law with the OPEN Government Act of 2007 (PDF).”
It gets worse: “An even larger number of agencies – 59 out of 100 – ignored the 2009 Obama-Holder guidance in their regulations. That guidance declared a ‘presumption of disclosure,’ encouraged discretionary releases even when the information might technically be covered by an exemption. … Despite Holder’s guidance, the government used the “discretionary” b(5) exemption 66,353 times last year, actually rising 17.9 percent from the previous year. (The number of FOIA requests processed rose only 5.3 percent.)”
State of the States: Not much brighter
The picture at the state level reads pretty much the same. Surprisingly, though perhaps not to those who live here, California ranks among the worst in the nation, despite having comprehensive open-government laws on the books for decades (public records since 1968, open meetings since 1953). To be fair, the Sunlight Foundation’s state-by-state survey looked only at the accessibility of records on the Internet; but still, this is the home of Silicon Valley.
“Golden State lawmakers’ efforts to make public information accessible on the Web got a D grade in a report card released by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation,” the Sacramento Bee reported. “California was one of six states to receive a D rating. Eight states won the highest grade of A, while six flunked.”
The California Public Records Act has long been criticized as “toothless” by FOI advocates here; I reported on this for the San Francisco Bay Guardian back in the late 1990s. Yet California hardly seems worse than the heart of free speech territory itself.
“[E]ven as the Bay Area plays host to a revolution in information sharing, local sunshine advocates bent on protecting the public’s right to know face an uphill battle. At the state level, budget rollbacks threaten to impact agencies’ ability to respond to California Public Records Act inquiries. And when it comes to illuminating the activities of government or tracing how money influences politics in San Francisco, secrecy is still the word of the day.”
Act Locally: The legacy of James Madison
In San Francisco, Sunshine Week is marked with a different sort of report card: the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, presented by the Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter. I’ve been a member of the FOI Committee and co-organizer of the awards for 15 of its 28 years, since my time on the Bay Guardian’s FOI beat, and to this day it is one of the most inspiring things I do.
The awards honor local journalists and news media but also private citizens, public officials, attorneys and watchdog groups who fight for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know how its business is conducted.
Freedom of information isn’t a sexy issue, it’s not “bread and butter,” it involves lots of documents and dull commission meetings. But the impact of what we know (or not) about how our governments make decisions and spend our money is very real and very human.
Here are some of this year’s winners and their categories:
Berkeley Copwatch (Organization), a volunteer citizen watchdog group, used public records to block a Homeland Security grant for putting an armored military vehicle on the streets of Albany and Berkeley.
Contra Costa Times reporters Malaika Fraley and Matthias Gafni (Professional Journalist) wrote groundbreaking stories that led to changes in how East Bay school districts handle sex abuse allegations.
The Sacramento Bee (News Media) used public records to uncover $54 million in secret assets in the State Parks system.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission (Public Official) demanded and won pre-election disclosure of an anonymous $11 million campaign contribution they called “the largest … ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history.”
Seth Rosenfeld (Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award) spent nearly 30 years fighting and repeatedly defeating the FBI, DOJ and other federal agencies to obtain their files on “subversives” from the 1960s.
You can read all about the winners and their achievements on the SPJ Norcal website. Their stories are inspiration itself. If there’s one thing they prove, it’s that you can fight City Hall … and win.
Fight for open government. And eat consciously.
State-by-State FOI Laws
Sunlight Foundation: “Open Legislative Data Report Card”
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: Open Government Guide (“a complete compendium of information on every state’s open records and open meetings laws”)
Sacramento Bee: “Sunshine Week”
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