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Conference on access, right to know will help mark Freedom of Information Day

By Cheryl Arvidson

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 information.

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. Kennedy.

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 public.

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 University.

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."

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