(Posted 3/19/2008 by Waldo Jaquith)
Why FOIA Matters
For those of you out there who think FOIA is just a tool for the media to use to annoy public officials, I’ve got news for you: In this day and age access to information about not only what your government does but how it makes its decision can literally have life or death results.
Take last year’s collapse the I-35W bridge in Minnesota last year. As a result of the collapse many state governments, including Virginia, under pressure from the Department of Homeland Security, closed up access to previously available information on the structural safety of bridges in the state.
The argument was that having the information available, as it had been for many years, would have aided terrorists in planning attacks on the nation’s infrastructure. And yet closing up the information, I would argue, actually makes us less safe.
When the public is armed with information about the bridges they drive over every day, they can take action. They can contact their legislators and the media to pressure decisionmakers into putting the essential money into shoring up our bridges and other infrastructure. It has been reported that the governor of Minnesota actually vetoed transportation funding bills for two years before the collapse of the bridge.
Another example is the case of, Seung-Hui Cho, the man who perpetrated an unfathomable crime against Virginia Tech and the Tech community. Cho had a long history of mental problems prior to the day he perpetrated the worst school shooting in U.S. history. School after school passed him onto to the next level and did not share information on his clearly disturbing behavior. To this day most of those schools will not share information with the public for fear of violating the killer’s privacy.
Can someone explain how keeping someone’s mental illness and scholastic record private makes us safer? Wouldn’t it make more sense to open up the information and let us learn from the obvious mistakes that were made? Hiding information rarely results in its intended purpose, which one can only surmise is to somehow to protect the public from too much knowledge of how their government, or school system or any other taxpayer-funded body makes decisions.
The granddaddy of them all when it comes to open government is the apparent lack of communication between agencies of our own federal government that may have contributed to the most tragic event in U.S. history, the events of 9/11. There may be many reasons why one agency was not sharing information with another and on and on, but the end result is the same-hiding information only ends up causing more problems than it helps.
Perhaps the most important function that freedom of information brings us is in our very own lives. A lot of people think that FOIA is not important until they have occasion to need it. Everyday people contact the Coalition needing documents from their government for hundreds of different reasons. Many of them have gone through terrible ordeals simply because their own government was not willing to let them see documents that the greatly needed.
Maybe they need medical records for a recently adopted handicapped child; or a copy of their personnel file so they can understand why they lost their public-sector job or got turned down for a promotion; or maybe it’s a taxpayer who wants to know how and where their local school system spends 50% of their tax dollars. Whatever the reason, when people need FOIA, it can become the most important statute in the world, and yet before they have occasion to use it, so many in the government want to restrict our right to inspect and copy documents that should be open to the public.
Nothing breeds fear and distrust like government bodies acting in secret, and access to public documents are, along with open meetings, and the right to vote, the best tools the citizen’s of Virginia can arm themselves with to pressure for change when change is needed.
Making Your FOIA Life Easier
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800 E. Broad St., Richmond
Thursday, May 30, 2013
9:00 - 12:00
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