Today, we observe National Freedom of Information Day. This observance is meant to highlight the importance of citizens’ right to know in a healthy, functioning democracy. The right to know is a penumbra right: it is not explicitly guaranteed in our founding documents, but it is implied in other explicitly defined rights. The right to know is implied by the freedom of the press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, and (arguably, if tangentially) the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments—specifically, procedural due process part, wherein “legal persons” must be informed of any governmental proceedings that could potentially result in the deprivation of life, liberty, or property.
The date, March 16th, was chosen to observe National Freedom of Information Day because it is the birthday of James Madison, Jr.—the “Father of the Constitution” and the United States’ fourth president. Like all of the men regarded as the “Founding Fathers” on the U.S., Madison’s legacy is a mixed bag. Madison was a gifted legislator, skilled at coalition building and with a great mind for policy—even if he did propose the prototype of the Electoral College. As the nation’s fifth Secretary of State, Madison oversaw the Louisiana Purchase; as POTUS, he led us into the rather dubiously declared, fought, and won(?) War of 1812. And we mustn’t forget that as the “Father of the Constitution” and the driving force behind the Bill of Rights—documents meant to outline freedoms guaranteed to “all men”—, he owned people. He was also the foremost advocate for citizens’ right to know:
‘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 a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.’ – letter to W.T. Barry
Because being empowered with accurate knowledge is integral to self-determination, lying (blatantly or by omission) is both morally wrong and ethically reprehensible—it is a violation of the social contract. To lie to someone is to manipulate the reality in which they expect to make decisions. By hiding information or obscuring it with misinformation, various halls of power are manipulating the reality in which their constituencies are expected to make decisions, thereby manipulating the decisions themselves.
Being a precondition for a free and effective democracy, access to information in fundamentally important to citizens’ ability to participate in decision-making and to hold public servants accountable. Unfortunately, many (most?) governments fail—to varying degrees—to maintain a level of transparency adequate for citizen participation in government. Though the United States originally passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, after similar legislation had been scuttled by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the FOIA has proven itself rather user unfriendly. Government offices and agencies reduce access to information with long waits, obfuscation, unreasonable fees, and information dumps that obscure the requested information in an avalanche of tangential or irrelevant records. That is, unless they are able to hide it behind the fig leaf of national security.
Like many other observances, National Freedom of Information Day is less of a commemoration of achievement and more of a declaration of aspiration. While the United States is nowhere near the bottom of the barrel in terms of transparency and access to information, there is significant room for improvement. Improving our government’s transparency is a big job and will require hard work. Some of that work will be continuing to needle our elected officials, especially our legislators, about how vitally important our right to know is. Some of it will be supporting independent journalism while also advocating more broadly for a return to a news media that is not driven by profit. And a lot of that work is going to be each of us taking it upon ourselves to seek out reputable sources of information, educating ourselves, and disseminating accurate information.
In other words, “YOU GOTTA FIGHT *air guitar* FOR YOUR RIGHT *air drums* FOR INFORMAAAAAATION!”
Yeah, yeah. Okay, the syllables don’t quite work, but you know what I’m getting at!