A free press is an informed press

To sufficiently inform the public, the press must have access to government info.

In the United States we have a unique system of civil liberties that are the backbone of our society. The First Amendment’s freedom of expression guarantees are arguably the most important, as those guarantees seek informed public choices, protect the opportunity to influence government through expression and association, and secure the right to oppose the government by peaceful means. In short, without the First Amendment, U.S. democracy as we know it would not exist.

One form of free expression is freedom of the press. The press informs the public and serves as a check on government. To do this effectively, the press must have access to government information. Unfortunately, in today’s United States, neither the people nor the press have adequate access to this.

The current policy is to release government data only when the requester has “a sound legal basis.” Attorney General John Ashcroft laid down the rule, rejecting the prior policy of releasing government data unless disclosure presents a foreseeable harm. While the standards are legalese, their differences have a direct and significant effect: Former Attorney General Janet Reno’s policy assumed disclosure; Ashcroft’s clings to secrecy.

Admittedly, there must be some limits on public access to respect executive privilege, national security and government resources. But Ashcroft’s policy blatantly exceeds these limits. Executive privilege and true national security risks cover only a narrow area of data. Also, the current policy expends more government resources than its predecessor. Determining if a requestor can win in a lawsuit is considerably more difficult than determining if disclosure would cause foreseeable harm. Ashcroft’s goal seems to be suppression of as much information as possible. This decreases public awareness and public discourse, unacceptably hindering the political process.

To paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a policy restricting free speech or free thought is “the most dangerous subversion” of American values. If our democracy is to truly put power in the people’s hands, they must be informed. If Ashcroft will not adhere to the spirit of open government, Congress or the courts should force him to. Within certain limits there is no such thing as too much discussion, too much truth or too much freedom.