(Posted December 1999)
Through a federal statute enacted in 1966, Americans can ask for copies of records maintained by various federal government agencies, departments, and the military. Since it was enacted, the "Freedom of Information Act" has become an extremely popular information tool. Historians, journalists, educators, private companies, citizen interest groups and ordinary people have used this law to examine documents that would otherwise have been kept secret. Laws that are somewhat similar exist at the state level.
Over the years, this important law has helped citizens make public records about events that Americans want to know more about, such as the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the tragic 1986 accident involving the Challenger spaceship.
Now, the Internet has made reading some of this information even easier.
Many documents are posted electronically by interest groups and the government. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation makes frequently requested records from its case files available on its Web Site (www.fbi.gov).
"The Freedom of Information Act enables Americans to get greater access to information on the activities and operations of the U.S. government," explains Bernard Fensterwald III, a private attorney who specializes in the field. "It keeps Americans informed."
There are several exemptions designed to assure that sensitive information doesn't fall into the wrong hands. For example, any record that could compromise national security or cause an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" cannot be released. And documents belonging to the president, vice president, members of Congress, and the courts aren't included in the act, although many of them are routinely released.
But unless a record meets the legal standard to be withheld, "it must be disclosed to the public on request," Fensterwald notes.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies may charge filers a reasonable fee for the cost of searching and copying, although in some cases, the service is free. Individuals don't have to disclose why they want records, which can include printed and electronic material, tape recordings, maps, and photographs.
Even government workers can use the law to ensure that their agencies are operating ethically. For instance, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization of government workers, frequently asks for records to expose potential wrongdoing and malpractice involving environmental issues.
Just the fact that these groups are using their rights publicly to obtain records can make a big difference. "Filing a request by itself can be enough to stop something that was proceeding because it was not known," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER. Americans also have protection concerning information being held about them in secret files. Under another law, called the Privacy Act, enacted in 1974, citizens have the right to see records that the federal government has assembled on them and request that these be corrected if there are errors.
And under the U.S. Constitution, American citizens can use their right of free speech to criticize official policy. For example, after obtaining documents about the protection of wetland areas, PEER wrote a "report card" giving the government poor "grades" on this particular issue and made it public by releasing it to the media and posting it on the Internet.
When a group of people from within government speak out about improper or illegal conduct, they are often called "whistle-blowers" because they bring such behavior to the attention of the public. These whistle-blowers have specific rights under U.S. law to be free of reprisals for their actions.
Once retrieved by the public, Freedom of Information Act documents are often widely shared with other interested citizens. For example, in Pensacola, Florida, a group of residents obtained federal government records maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers regarding the environmental impact of a proposed high-rise condominium on the beach. They then placed 900 pages of information in a community building for other residents to read. As of this writing, the issue is still pending, but the community is forcefully representing its interests.
The United States is one of a handful of countries that have a legal right for its citizens to access such government information. Other countries with similar laws include Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Sweden.
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