SPJ Reading Room
Its just too important not to get involved
By Mal Leary
Just about every day, reporters use the state or federal public records or open meetings laws to do their job. In fact, it becomes so much a part of the routine for most of us that we often forget how important it is to be advocates for open government.
It is very, very important. Those laws allow us to do our jobs in reporting what is happening in our states and municipalities and today those laws are under attack on many fronts, often under cover of national security.
In state after state, the mantra of homeland security has been used to take records that have been public and hide them from public view. We have had the specter of state and federal officials using homeland security as a reason to protect the public from knowing what witches brew of pollutants and pathogens were found in the flood waters of New Orleans.
All too often we fight the open records or open meetings battles one at a time. Frequently it is just one news organization that fights the fight. We have to get smarter.
I think an important reason why we have had some success in Maine is that journalists have joined in a broad coalition of open government advocates and have changed the process of establishing and reviewing exceptions to the records and meetings laws. Preventing bad law is a lot easier than getting it repealed.
It was not easy. And as President of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, I can tell you some times it was like herding cats getting the disparate groups to focus on just FOIA and not their own agendas. Our members range from the usual media groups to the Sportsmans Alliance of Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Trail Lawyers and the Librarians.
What unites us is the firm belief that the best government is one that operates in the sunshine.
The coalition was instrumental in getting a law approved, in effect now for two years, that requires any legislation proposing an exception to the law be separately reviewed by the legislatures Judiciary Committee using a set of public interest standards.
The tests are simple, but crucial to protecting the publics interest in open government. The panel must determine whether the record needs to be collected at all and what value is there to keeping a record confidential from the public.
The panel must determine if a federal law requires the record be confidential and whether any provision protects an individual's privacy interest and, if so, whether that interest substantially outweighs the public interest in the record being open.
The committee also must weigh whether public disclosure puts a business at a competitive disadvantage and, if so, whether that business's interest substantially outweighs the public interest in the disclosure of records. The panel also must weigh whether public disclosure compromises the position of a public body in negotiations and, if so, whether that public body's interest substantially outweighs the public interest in the disclosure of the records.
The law also requires the committee weigh whether public disclosure jeopardizes the safety of a member of the public or the public in general and, if so, whether that safety interest substantially outweighs the public interest in the disclosure of records.
While the criteria may not be perfect, they are in law and the process has acted as a block to any new exceptions and has also resulted in some existing exceptions to be more narrowly re-written.
Get involved and stay involved. Open government is fundamental to our jobs as reporters and editors.
Mal Leary is the SPJ Sunshine chair for Maine, President of the MFOIC and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. He covers state government for a number of newspapers and radio stations.