Express Yourself: The importance of the Freedom of Information Act

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Wally Pearce, Winters Elder Day Council
Special to the Express

Last Wednesday, March 16, was Freedom of Information Day. Why is that date important and what’s the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?

If you don’t know, consider yourself among the many. The average person may’ve not heard of FOIA, and a typical household may-not know how FOIA applies to them, their family and community. The benefits of FOIA are easier information access; greater public awareness of laws, rules, regulations, policies, and procedures; enhanced government efficiency and transparency; greater public participation in government affairs; and enhanced public confidence and faith in government.

Freedom of Information Day is an annual event on March 16, the birthday of the America’s fouth President, James Madison, regarded as the Father of the Constitution and leading advocate and author of the Bill of Rights. Annually, the James Madison Award is presented by the American Library Association on Freedom of Information Day to recognize those individuals or groups that have defended, protected, and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know.

In 1955, FOIA was advocated by Congressman John Moss from California, after a series of proposals during the Cold War led to a steep rise in government’s willful concealment of public information.

Enacted into law on July 5, 1967, FOIA provides the legal right of individuals to obtain access to federal records, except where records are protected from public disclosure by exemptions. It’s often defined as the law that keeps citizens in the know and to ensure that their government’s actions stay transparent, and in the best interest and accountability of the public’s eye. That right to know is the foundation of culpability in our democracy, preserves representative government, by and for, all the people. FOIA has been used to expose a wide range of government misconduct and waste, along with threats to the public’s health and safety.

In 1974, after the Watergate scandal, FOIA was amended to force greater agency compliance and was also amended in 1996 to allow access to electronic information.
FOIA only applies to federal agencies and doesn’t create a right of access to records of Congress, the courts, or by state or local governments. Any requests for state or local government records should be directed to the appropriate state or local authority.

Because FOIA does not apply to the public records of states, in 1968, California enacted the California Public Records Act (CPRA), under California Government Code (GC) §6250-6270. In its declarations, mindful of the right of individuals’ privacy, the California Legislature declared the public has an inherent right to access of state/local information concerning the people’s business.

This ensures that California residents can use their legal right to access and obtain public records, which presumes all government information and records are available to the public. This access is not just at the state level, it’s at the local level as well, such as Yolo County itself, including any of its four cities.

In its May 28, 2020, decision, the California Supreme Court removed financial barriers to electronic public records. There’s no charge to inspect documents in person and visits should occur during regular business hours as permitted by the public agency. There is however an estimated fee of 10 to 12 cents per page for copies of documents.

Public records are defined as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” There is a separate category of “purely personal information” that, although it may be in the custody of a government agency, does not fall under the act.

California Government Code (GC) §6255 states an exemption, “The agency shall justify withholding any record by demonstrating that the record in question is exempt under express provisions of this chapter or that on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.”

The public body must disclose all records in response to a request unless an exemption applies, and then it’s the agencies inherent burden to defend, in writing, that their claim for immunity exists and applies.

Guaranteed, free access, to public information enables every citizen, the media and law enforcement, to use records to uncover corruption and malfeasance.

Transparency by government grows the probability of detecting corruptive practices and discovery can be an effective deterrent to current/future public deception.

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