ARLINGTON, Va. White House chief of staff
John Podesta will be the keynote speaker at a
daylong conference March 16 on access to
information, being held in conjunction with
National Freedom of Information Day.
The conference, sponsored by The Freedom Forum in
cooperation with the American Library Association,
falls on the 248th birthday of James Madison, the
father of the First Amendment. The conference
renews the tradition of using Madison's birth
anniversary to bring together advocates of access
and the right-to-know, said Paul McMasters, First
Amendment ombudsman for The Freedom Forum.
"Ever since The Freedom Forum hosted a conference
(in 1996) observing the 30th anniversary of the
Freedom of Information Act, I've wanted to follow
up with a National FOI Day program," McMasters
said. "It's a great opportunity to renew this
country's commitment to the Jeffersonian principle
of an informed citizenry."
McMasters expects between 100 and 125 people to
attend the conference, titled "Access to
Information: Strategies and Solutions."
In addition to Podesta, other confirmed speakers
include Roslyn Mazer of the Justice Department and
Patrice McDermott of OMB Watch. Mazer is chairman
of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals
Panel, which has the final word on whether a
government document will be declassified.
McDermott will describe her group's new "Agenda
for Access," a plan to gain access to government
The conference also will include three panels on
important information-access topics. The panels
will deal with various legal challenges to the
Freedom of Information Act; whether the EPA should
publish on the Internet the "worst case" scenario
reports that 66,000 chemical plants across the
country will have to file with the government
starting next June; and the release of records
relating to the assassination of President John F.
Among the areas to be discussed during an FOIA
litigation panel are efforts to get access to the
budget requests of the Central Intelligence Agency
and efforts to win the release of FBI-gathered
information on celebrities.
Podesta is expected to discuss the Clinton
administration's efforts to declassify government
records and open proceedings to the public. Also
at the conference luncheon, members of the
President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records
Review Board and the authors of the legislation
that created and reauthorized the board will
receive the 10th annual James Madison Awards.
The honors go to those who champion, protect and
promote public access to government information
and the public's right to know, and are awarded by
the Coalition on Government Information. Coalition
members include the American Library Association,
the Society of Journalists and Authors and the
National Security Archive.
The JFK assassination review panel was established
in 1992 and since then has released thousands of
previously secret government records. It collected
more than 4 million pages of information on the
assassination that now are available to the
Members of the board who will be are: U.S.
District Judge John R. Tunheim of Minnesota,
chairman; Henry F. Graff, professor emeritus of
history at Columbia University; Kermit L. Hall,
executive dean of the Colleges of Arts and
Sciences and Dean of the College of Humanities at
Ohio State University; William L. Joyce, associate
university librarian for rare books and special
collections at Princeton University; and Anna
Kasten Nelson, distinguished adjunct historian and
professor of foreign relations at American
The members of Congress who will received the
award are John Glenn, former Democratic senator
from Ohio and chief sponsor of the act
establishing the board; Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.;
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; and Louis Stokes
former Democratic representative from Ohio.
Asked what founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and
James Madison would think of the state of
information access in the United States today,
McMasters speculated that they 'would be delighted
that there was a community of access activists as
dedicated to their vision as they are, but I think
they would share the dismay of many people that we
have fallen so short of their hopes for
transparency in government operations.'
He said the principles the founding fathers tried
to embed in the First Amendment recognize that
'freedom of speech, freedom of the press and
petition are meaningless unless citizens have
maximum access to government information.'
Both Jefferson and Madison, McMasters said "would
be particularly pleased that we have a Freedom of
Information Act and an Electronic Freedom of
Information Act and that those who understand
their vision have made sure that it was
implemented with new laws that address new
structures and new technologies."