|Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, at
National FOI Day conference.|
ARLINGTON, Va. — “In a healthy democracy, we the people need to know the
good, the bad and the ugly.” That was the assessment of Sen. John Cornyn,
R-Texas, as he addressed the 2005 National Freedom of Information Day
“Congress and the Courts: Confronting Secrecy” was the theme of this year’s
conference, held as usual on James Madison’s birth date.
The conference brought together access advocates, government officials,
lawyers, librarians, journalists, educators and others to discuss the latest
issues and developments in freedom of information. It was sponsored by the First
Amendment Center, in cooperation with the American Library Association.
The FOI Day Conference came midway through Sunshine Week, an initiative by
news media and other organizations to create a public dialogue on the value of
open government, which began March 13.
Cornyn, an ardent open-government advocate since his time as Texas attorney
general, gave the day’s keynote address, “FOI and the Consent of the Governed.”
In his speech, Cornyn emphasized the importance of citizens’ knowing what is
going on in their government.
Transparency and openness uphold “the basic premise of our self-governed
democracy that no government rules without consent of the governed,” he said.
“When we’re talking about consent of the governed … we’re talking about informed
consent. And informed consent is impossible without both a free and responsible
press and open and accessible government.”
Many federal officials share his commitment to government openness, Cornyn
said. One such official, he said, is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a fellow
Texan and former state official familiar with Texas’ well-established
open-government laws. Gonzales affirmed his commitment to openness during his
confirmation hearing, Cornyn said, when asked if he would be willing to work
with Cornyn on the issue.
Cornyn has also garnered support from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The two have
joined together to sponsor two bills: the OPEN Government Act
of 2005 (S. 394) and the Faster FOIA Act of
2005 (S. 589).
The day before the conference, Cornyn chaired a Senate Judiciary subcommittee
hearing on the OPEN Government Act — the first such FOIA oversight hearing since
1992, Cornyn said.
The OPEN Government Act, Cornyn said, is designed to “strengthen the FOIA and
close loopholes”; “help requesters receive timely responses”; “ensure that
agencies have strong incentives to act on requests in a timely fashion”; and
provide officials responsible for responding to FOIA requests “with all the
tools they need to ensure that government remains open and accessible.”
“As a whole the OPEN Government Act reiterates the principle that government
is based on not the need to know, but on our fundamental right to know as the
American people,” he said.
Cornyn went on to say that the Faster FOIA Act (which the Senate Judiciary
Committee today voted unanimously to send to the full Senate) would create a
commission to recommend ways for reducing delays in responding to FOIA
“By reforming our information policies to guarantee true access to all our
citizens to government records, we will revitalize the informed consent that
keeps America free,” he said.
Later in the day, representatives from Cornyn’s and Leahy’s offices joined
other panelists to talk about the two bills in greater detail during the
discussion “Stirrings in Congress: Strengthening Access.” Panelists also
discussed the Restore FOIA Act, which Leahy introduced in the Senate on March
15, and the Restore Open Government Act, which Rep. Henry Waxman introduced in
the House during the last session and plans to reintroduce in the current
Encouraged by the flurry of legislative action, moderator Pete Weitzel, of
the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, referred to the panel as the
“good news panel.”
Panelist Tara Magner shared Weitzel’s sentiment.
“Two years ago, I would speak at FOIA events, and it was doom and gloom,”
said Magner, counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she works for
Leahy. “A year ago, I got tired of doing that, and I looked for anything
positive to say. But I think this year we have a lot of positive things to say.
We have bipartisan bills starting to move through Congress. … In addition to
legislative movement, we have a greater awareness among conservatives and
liberals that secrecy is dangerous, it’s costly.”
Other topics discussed during the day were access to online court records and
access and the courts.
Also during the conference, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information
received the Eileen Cooke Award and Greg Schmidt of LIN Television Corp.
accepted the James Madison Award on behalf of his father, the late Richard
Schmidt. Both awards were
presented by the ALA.
At the end of the day, conference organizer and First Amendment Center
Ombudsman Paul McMasters gave attendees the charge to continue fighting for
“We live in dangerous times,” McMasters said. Ordinary citizens “know that
something’s not right when they can’t find out about the dangers around them.
They know that something’s not right when their local elected officials are
forced to enter into secrecy agreements with federal officials for the rationale
of protecting the homeland that in essence puts them in direct conflict with
their own constituencies.
"When we reach that point, we have to do a solemn examination of where we are
and what we’re doing and how we can work together to make sure that an open
society surely is open.”