A look at the Freedom of Information Act.

© 2006 Chuck Klein


This being SUNSHINE WEEK might be a great time to look at the Freedom of Information Act. This law was supposed to pointedly tell our elected officials - and the bureaucrats THEY control - that the First Amendment means what it says. There were, in the beginning, nine listed exemptions. However, there are now a significant amount of additional exemptions that have been added which are most difficult to examine inasmuch as the Department of Justice's web site list is current only through 2000. Guess you'll have to file a FOIA request just to learn if the subject of your interest has already been decided!

Some of these 9 exemptions include:

1) "...does not apply to matters that are…contained in or THE BEST OF CHUCK KLEINrelated to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions"(if your bank charges or changes fees, you can't find out under what authority these changes are or what governmental controls they might be usurping) and;

2) "Geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells" (if "big oil" is polluting your source of water, you can't find out why and where).  

It would be interesting to find out what exemptions certain politicians would claim if we filed a FOIA request to learn where and how they get their information that armed law-abiding, trained and licensed citizens are a threat to society. These are the same ones who think by posting a sign or signing a law barring firearms in certain locations that these places, magically, become gun-free zones. They don't, of course, they only become self-defense free zones. 

Exceptions are needed for the protection of real situations where, if certain records are disseminated, another party would gain unfair advantage. In addition to the nine listed exemptions - which no doubt were heavily lobbied for - the federal courts have been issuing exemptions by judicial decree.

In other words, if a business has enough money to hire attorneys to petition the courts for a special exemption, then they might not have to ever disclose their cache of information. Okay, fair enough, that's American free-enterprise at work. The rub, the outrage, is suppose this record holder is a government agency that doesn't want certain secret, embarrassing or whatever details divulged. It now becomes our money (taxes) that is spent bringing the case to the courts. The FOIA was a great concept, but like most other bureaucratic ideals, it has evolved into a typical whoever-has-the-most-money-wins - and guess who has the most money?

Circa 1957 front 2ndIn a Cincinnati Enquirer story (12 Mar 05) on this subject, Tim Smith, Director of Ohio Center for Privacy and the First Amendment, Kent State University, is quoted as saying, "The Government collects information that it doesn't need, and then decides to keep it private which is the worst of all possible worlds. Instead of stopping the intrusiveness, we'll just stop telling you about it." Scary. Of course, if the government offense is really offensive, you can always ask your Congress person or the courts to investigate...maybe, maybe not.