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Freedom of information: Why it matters

A free press is crippled when government information is hidden

Every state in the nation has a “freedom of information” law, legislation that’s meant to ensure that journalists and average citizens have access to public government records. Some states have better FOIA laws; some have worse. As The College Fix recently learned, Virginia has a particularly unyielding law: That state’s FOIA gives public institutions very broad latitude to suppress and withhold information. As one official from Virginia Commonwealth University told us, the law exempts “mandatory disclosure [of] personnel information of identifiable individuals,” and it also grants near-blanket immunity from the law’s disclosure requirements to numerous high-profile state officials. Journalists in Virginia can easily hit a brick wall trying to get information out of a state entity there.

There is a reason that freedom of information acts exist: Because government information should largely be free. This is a basic, ground-level precept of a free society: The government is not, or at least should not be, allowed to conceal its undertakings from the public. There is, of course, sensitive and secret information that the government has a legitimate interest in keeping under wraps, but things like “personnel information of identifiable individuals,” which essentially designates an entire common class of information as exempt from oversight, surely does not qualify.

There is a problem when governments feel comfortable enough to stymie reasonable attempts at oversight and disclosure. It may not seem like a huge deal to the average citizen. But authorities who treat information this way are saying something very specific, and very dangerous, about the citizenry they represent: That government is above them, that the workings and goings-on of government are not at all subject to reasonable supervision, and that government authorities, and not the people themselves, are ultimately the arbiters of what is right and appropriate. This is a perilous road to go down. State lawmakers should take care to make sure that their legislatures are ensuring fair and open access to government information; if we are to give our consent to be governed, we must also be allowed to superintend the people and the institutions to whom we have given that power.

MORE: University suppresses dozens of emails regarding controversy

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