Keeping the pressure on the government to be open and accountable
The citizens of a democracy should know what their government is doing, but politicians, bureaucrats and judges too often decide otherwise. This is why federal and state laws guaranteeing public access to government meetings and documents are so important.
This week, media groups, libraries, educational institutions and even the US government are calling attention to the importance of transparency in an annual celebration called “Sunshine Week.” The event was started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, now known as the News Leaders Association. (Sewell Chan, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor, is a member of the organization’s board of directors.)
The past year has been marked by some celebratory victories. For example, a coalition of news agencies filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request last year to identify recipients of taxpayer-funded assistance under a loan program. emergency for small businesses. After the Trump administration released an amended list, a federal judge ordered the Small Business Administration to provide the rest of the details.
In addition, courts and government agencies have compensated for disruption related to COVID-19 by providing virtual access to proceedings, making it easy to view but not always participate. The United States Supreme Court has become even more transparent, live streaming oral arguments conducted over the phone. (He should continue to broadcast live when he returns to the in-person arguments.) And federal officials responsible for responding to access to information requests have received remote training on how to handle hundreds of thousands of cases. requests.
These are welcome developments. But it is still too easy for government officials to frustrate the legitimate public interest in the functioning of government, despite the existence of laws designed to ensure transparency.
Chief among these is the Freedom of Information Act enacted by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and significantly strengthened in 2016. At an event hosted by Sunshine Week at the Justice Department on Monday, the Attorney General Merrick Garland said that “a loyal FOIA administration is essential for American Democracy.
He is right, but the law does not always keep its promise of transparency. In a March 11 letter to Garland, the Journalists’ Committee for Press Freedom and the Knight First Amendment Institute complained that the law had been “hampered by high rates of deference, increased delays in responding to requests and, consequently, a significant increase in the number of lawsuits against federal agencies. The letter urged the Justice Department to “take swift and decisive action to ensure compliance with the FOIA.”
Slow responses to requests aren’t the only problem. Exemptions in the law allow agencies to withhold documents for a variety of subjective reasons, including concerns about national security, individual privacy, and internal government deliberations.
With some requests, furthermore, federal agencies may refuse to confirm or deny that a requested document even exists. The law also contains “exclusions” for certain criminal justice and national security matters, meaning they are not subject to FOIA at all. Withholding certain sensitive information, such as the identity of a confidential informant, may be appropriate, but non-disclosure should be the exception, not the rule.
The state of California is more committed to transparency than the federal government, at least on paper. In 2004, voters amended the state constitution to include the people’s right to “access to information concerning the conduct of the affairs of the people”. And in 2018, the legislature approved SB 1421, which allows the public to view records involving police misconduct and serious use of force under the state’s public records law.
Some law enforcement agencies, however, have dragged their feet to comply. The LA Times sued Los Angeles County, alleging that the sheriff’s department has repeatedly refused to release public files on deputies involved in misconduct or shootings. This is one of the many cases in which this newspaper, sometimes joined by other news outlets, has gone to court to demand information that the public has a right to see on issues ranging from possible misconduct of police to allegations of sexual abuse and harassment during immigration detention. centers.
So-called “sun” laws can be further improved to make it more difficult for officials to hide their decisions in secrecy. For example, State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, author of SB 1421, proposed new legislation that would give the public access to additional records of police misconduct and impose fines on agencies. who would not have responded in a timely manner.
At the federal level, Congress should require members of the judiciary to be more open about their financial affairs, including the gifts they receive in connection with speaking engagements and the reimbursement of travel expenses.
But no matter what the law says, some government agencies will prefer to operate in the shadows. That is why the government must be pressed to be transparent and accountable not only during Sun Week, but every day of the year.
– Los Angeles Times