Losing a Sliver of Rhode Island’s History

The following blog post is one of several 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 Linda Lotridge Levin | Access/RI

It was Sunday morning Dec. 7, 1941. Steve Early, the long-serving press secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had settled into his study to read the newspapers when the telephone rang, the one that was connected via a private line to the White House.

Early leaned over and picked up the phone. The voice at the other end was the President, or the Boss, as Early and his colleagues in the White House called FDR. “Have you got a pencil handy,” the President asked his press secretary. Aware of Roosevelt’s puckish sense of humor, Early said, “Do I need it?’ Indeed he did.

This hand-written message and other messages FDR sent to Early and to Harry Hopkins, one of the President’s close aides, are now stored in a carefully curated cardboard box in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. They are available to historians, researchers and members of the public who are curious about the events of, as FDR so eloquently said, “a date which will live in infamy.”

In attempting to fulfill a public records request late last year, Rhode Island officials discovered that years’ worth of emails to and from people in state government had disappeared. Although the state claimed that the emails were not lost, they now were in a format that was not searchable. The emails, for all practical purposes, were gone, missing.

The history of this country, of its 50 states and its cities and towns, is told through the printed documents that accumulate over the centuries. Think of The Federalist Papers written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton that led to the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Thus, when Rhode Island lost what probably were thousands and thousands of emails, it was losing at least a sliver of its history.

Here’s what happened:

In 2015, the state decided to upgrade its email system by switching to a cloud-hosted system that was supposed to be a more efficient way to retain and back up data. But it proved incompatible with the old system. The two systems simply refused to work together.

When a former candidate for governor requested records from the state Board of Elections so he could analyze them for possible voter fraud, he was told the state was unable to retrieve many of the emails he was looking for. Then the Department of Administration stepped in and confirmed that not only were those emails unavailable but so were thousands of others. And, worse, the state did not have the technology or resources to retrieve them, and if it did, the cost would be prohibitive.

Historians recounting the events of the Nixon presidency might have a very different story to tell if it were not for the audio tape recordings Nixon made and saved.

Between February 1971 and July 1973, President Richard Nixon secretly recorded 3,700 hours of his phone calls and meetings across the executive offices. These recordings played a leading role in his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974. They remain perhaps the greatest treasure of information ever left by a president, as well as the most complex, controversial set of presidential records in U.S. history. They are available for the public to listen to at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.

Now in his second year in office, President Trump is a regular — sometimes several times a day — user of Twitter as he tweets government business, personal details, and opinions on any number of issues of the moment.

While he has a press secretary who holds regular briefings with reporters, President Trump has developed this very personal means of communicating with the public. It remains to be seen whether the White House is preserving these tweets, which one day will become an important set of documents in his presidential library.

What will the cost be to the public, to historians and to journalists trying to tell stories of the day if public documents are not preserved?

This is why the federal Freedom of Information Act and open records laws in the states are critical to the free flow of information in our country. The right of access to public records is a principle of the utmost importance in a free society.

Linda Lotridge Levin is a professor of journalism emerita at the University of Rhode Island and the president of ACCESS/RI, a coalition of non-profit organizations dedicated to keeping the workings of government transparent.

Above photo taken by Flickr user cmh2315fl and used with permission under a CC 2.0 license.

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. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University. 

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