National Freedom of Information Day

03/17/11 Zack Baddorf
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Wednesday was National Freedom of Information Day, a day designed to bring attention to the public’s right to oversee its government through open communication. About 50 people came together on the University of Florida campus yesterday evening to hear citizens, journalists and attorneys talk about the struggle to access public records and attend public meetings.

National Freedom of Information Day coincides with the birthday of former President James Madison, who’s considered by some to be the father of freedom of information.

That founding father said people must “arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

Lucy Morgan has been doing just. She’s worked for the St. Petersburg Times for more than four decades, relying heavily on public records.

But she’s had problems getting access to public documents and attending public meetings ever since Florida Governor Rick Scott was inaugurated at the start of the year.

“We have encountered a wall that is different from any past governors where we are having extreme difficulty getting records with all kinds of delays and roadblocks being thrown up.”

Morgan gave an example of how the governor picked a particular reporter to cover a meeting that should have been open to the public.

“That editor admitted to the mansion that night in place of the rest of the reporters, wrote a column which described the governor as a hero and said he was utterly charming.”

Morgan says this meant the other reporters had no independent report of what actually happened during the meeting.

The senior correspondent with the St. Pete Times is uncertain why this is happening. She’s not sure whether the governor is deliberately trying to restrict access or whether the problem is just that Scott is new to politics.

Regardless, she says there will “likely” be a number of lawsuits between news organization and the governor’s office over access to records and meetings. For her, that’s troubling.

“I don’t think you want to go through the expense and the turmoil of trying to sue a governor you’re trying to cover, except in rare circumstances.”

This is not just happening in Florida.

An Associated Press analysis released earlier this week found that more people are asking for federal records but federal agencies took action on fewer requests last year. In Washington on Tuesday, experts told the Senate that the Freedom of Information Act is an unwieldy and inefficient tool for obtaining government records.

Barbara Petersen, the president of the non-partisan First Amendment Foundation, says getting access to information can be even tougher for citizens.

“Because you go as John Smith and make a public records request and okay, or you go as John Smith, reporter for the Tampa Tribune or the St. Petersburg Times, you have a different impact.”

Petersen’s non-profit organization based in Tallahassee has been advocating for the public’s right to oversee its government since 1984.

“We have to remember that our government is our government. We are the government. It’s we the people.”

She points out that public servants work for the public.

“And as any employer we have a right to know what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it. It’s our money after all.”

The freedom of information advocate said without access to government info, there’s no accountability or oversight. Petersen said people should ask questions about local issues.

“Why are they building the school there and not here? Why are they not doing this in my park? Why aren't there more police on the streets? Those are all questions of concern to most citizens and they can find out the answers to those questions by accessing government records and attending government meetings.”

Theo Karantsalis is one citizen who regularly requests public records. He’s a librarian in Miami and came to Tampa to celebrate Freedom of Information Day

“We’re celebrating disclosure, not secrecy. And it’s especially important for the citizenry to step up to the plate to make sure we have access.”

Karantsalis said people can step up by requesting information from their government about issues that concern them and then share it.

“They have a right to access these records and they need to roll up their sleeves and get busy.”

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