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SPJ releases top 10 urgent threats to freedom of information


3/14/2023


CONTACT:
Jodi Rave Spotted Bear, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair, jodispottedbear@gmail.com
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Specialist, 317-920-4785, zberg@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists has named the top 10 urgent threats to freedom of information in 2023 at the local, state and tribal levels in conjunction with Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information.

“The public’s right to access government records is critical to a healthy democracy, yet freedom of information is under constant threat," SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair Jodi Rave Spotted Bear said. "Open records laws are critical to government transparency at the local, state, federal and tribal level. All lawmakers should be working to strengthen freedom of information protections, not weaken them.

“The top 10 urgent threat list shows we have an overlooked segment of the public — the dual citizens of Indigenous nations and the United States – who have little to zero access to open records in their own communities,” said Spotted Bear, who is also an SPJ at-large director.

Sterling Cosper, vice chair of the SPJ FOI Committee: “To be truly in charge of their government, the people need the most transparency possible. If someone can’t deal with constant scrutiny while trying to go about the tough job of governing, they have no business doing it.”

Here are SPJ’s Top 10 Urgent Threats to Freedom of Information in 2023:

Most Indigenous people in the United States do not have access to vital governmental records within their own tribes. There are 574 federally recognized sovereign tribal governments within the United States. The Native American Journalists Association reports that fewer than five tribes have freedom of information laws granting the right to its citizens to access government documents or deliberations. How can a government be for the people when the people don’t know what is happening with their government?

Lawmakers in Missouri are considering legislation that would substantially weaken the Missouri Sunshine Law. The bill would “allow lawmakers to withhold a wide swath of records from the public,” the Missouri Independent reported, including records of a state lawmaker or staff member pertaining to “legislation or the legislative process.”

Two bills in Washington State would make it more difficult for requesters to appeal denials and allow courts to penalize requesters. “If passed as drafted, this legislation would make the state Public Records Act more burdensome for requesters,” the Washington Coalition for Open Government has said. “It would make state and local governments less transparent.”

In Hawaii, lawmakers are considering legislation to keep budget documents and other records secret. These documents “that are now routinely made public by state and county agencies might instead be kept secret,” according to Honolulu Civil Beat.

Arizona state legislators in January adopted new rules shielding their own records from disclosure under the state’s open records law. Under the new rules, the Washington Post reported, legislators’ “emails and other documents will be destroyed after 90 days — in many cases, well before members of the public know to ask for them.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision in 2022 weakening the right of requesters to recover fees from recalcitrant agencies. The court held that “if government bodies turn over records voluntarily, after being sued but before a judge takes action, the requesters have not prevailed under the law and can no longer seek attorneys fees,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. State lawmakers are now considering legislation that would counteract this decision.

In Iowa, state lawmakers are considering a measure that could lead to substantial delays to litigation over public records cases in court. “This proposal would create a huge, and worrisome, bottleneck at the Iowa Public Information Board,” Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told Iowa Capital Dispatch. “It is not unusual for cases to drag for months with no decision by the board.”

In Georgia, lawmakers have advanced legislation that “would require redaction of names and property ownership from state data bases of law enforcement personnel, politicians, and hundreds of thousands of other government officials,” the Georgia Recorder reported. Open government advocates have criticized the proposals as well-intentioned but overly broad, the Recorder reported, noting that “politicians running for office could shield their assets from scrutiny, and even live outside the district where they are running for office.

State lawmakers in Virginia last month struck down a proposal that would have required disclosure by state agencies of the names of government officials using taxpayer-funded credit cards. Secrecy surrounding which officials are making purchases “means that holding anyone accountable for any questionable purchases is difficult,” Virginia Coalition for Open Government executive director Megan Rhyne told the Virginia Mercury.

New Mexico state lawmakers are considering legislation that would reduce the transparency of the hiring process for government executive positions. “The bill, which has drawn opposition from open-government advocates, adds an exemption to the New Mexico Public Records Act,” the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. “It would allow governments to keep secret the identities of applicants for appointed executive positions, such as a city manager, police chief or school superintendent, except for finalists.”

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund or give to the SPJ Foundation.

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