The following blog post is one of six that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Jim Campbell
Maine Freedom of Information Coalition
All over the United States, as well as in many other countries, there seems to be a surge of efforts to limit access to information collected, generated, or held by governments at all levels.
Sometimes limitations are enacted in the name of security (national or local); sometimes in the name of privacy; sometimes because providing that information would be “a burden” on government agencies; sometimes to protect “trade secrets” whose public availability would offend businesses that states are increasingly trying to retain or woo to bolster their economies. Whatever the proffered justification, the result is the same: additional limitations on citizen access to information that taxpayers are footing the bill for.
In Maine, we have seen in the past year, and continue to see, examples of many of these justifications, and the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition has reacted to several. For example, MFOIC has filed Friend of the Court briefs on several occasions to support access to public information.
In one case, MFOIC — joined by the New England First Amendment Coalition — submitted a brief supporting the position that property appraisals in the hands of the Department of Transportation, which under law are generally confidential and may not be disclosed, should, nonetheless, be available to plaintiffs in civil court suits that need that information so plaintiffs can effectively state their cases in court. In short, MFOIC asserted, such “exceptions to the Freedom of Access Act, 1 M.R.S, §§ 400-414, should not be construed to create statutory privileges preventing litigants from accessing government records in court proceedings.”
There have been many exemptions made by the legislature over the years to the state’s Freedom of Access Act, well over 400 to date. Extending those general exemptions into situations which would keep lawful litigants from obtaining the information they need to receive a fair and complete judicial hearing is, in MFOIC’s opinion, neither warranted nor just.
The legislature this session is considering adding still another exemption to the FOAA law. This one would remove the addresses and phone numbers of social workers from the website of the state agency that oversees their licensure. The primary justification offered is that social workers often deal with individuals who have addiction and/or mental health problems, and social workers could be in danger if a disturbed or angry client were to obtain their home address.
Of course, this justification could be offered for almost any type of government work, from policing functions to animal control to health care to tax collection. This is potentially a “slippery slope” situation of the worst kind, and there are already existing mechanisms that social workers or other government employees can use if they are concerned about their safety.
If a citizen wants to know if a social worker, in this case, has a state license, it could be very difficult to find out if the social worker is named John Smith or Elizabeth Jones, absent any other information about the person. MFOIC will be in contact with the relevant legislative committee to point out these problems and advocate for openness.
In another pending Friend of the Court submission, a conservator of a parent’s estate petitioned to have information about the assets of the estate removed from a county probate court’s website. The information is available at the courthouse at any time it is open; the petitioner just does not want it to be placed online.
On its face, an argument could be made that the availability of such information might attract thieves, or that the matter is simply a private family concern that doesn’t need to be detailed on a website. But probate court information is not a private family matter, and the assertion that public information should not be available on the web is a position at odds with efforts of government agencies to be more transparent. MFOIC agreed to represent the public’s interest, at the request of the court, and will be submitting a brief asserting that public information is public information in whatever physical or electronic form in which it may be found. If a public record is available to the public in physical form, it should also be available to the public in digital form.
If “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” it falls to all of us to keep the grit off the windows and keep the light shining in. It is a responsibility that seems never-ending, but it is absolutely necessary.
Jim is president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.