National Freedom of Information Day Conference report

March 15, 2010: Guest post from ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) Director, Barbara Jones

The Newseum in Washington, DC is a “must visit.“ Yesterday I enjoyed watching high school students in the First Amendment section, discussing the questions posed to them about the “5 freedoms.“ (More Americans know the names of the Simpsons than the 5 freedoms of the First Amendment!) The complementary right to privacy is carved in stone there: “If the 1st Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.“ (Former Justice Thurgood Marshall)

Today the Newseum hosted the 12th annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference, which kicks off Sunshine Week, a series of information policy events around the country. The winners of the ALA James Madison Award were Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel of the National Security Archive and Anne Wiseman, Chief Counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. Their legal challenges to retrieve White House email from the Bush era have laid the groundwork for good email documentation policy for administrations to come, including Obama’s.

Privacy is always a complementary balancing factor in discussions of government transparency.  This was evident in remarks by Norman Eisen, Special Council to President Obama for Ethics and Government Reform. When asked about privacy on various agencies’ interactive web systems, he said they “try to err on the side of caution.“ This reminded me of Department of Homeland Security hearings I attended in Spring 2009. Several federal agencies gave demos of their interactive websites, which encourage private citizens to input opinions and reactions. If a frequent flier needs to vent after the flight from hell, there is a place on the TSA web site. But when the afternoon discussions turned to privacy policies, there was not agency-wide consensus on what to do with all that personal data.

Citizen participation is crucial to a democracy. Interactive government websites, however, might not be the best venue.

The keynoter was Congressman William L. Clay, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives. I had an opportunity to ask him about library users’ concerns about privacy and the census. In this case I was much reassured by the response. The census website, and upcoming ad campaigns, will outline the ways in which personally identifiable information is protected—and the severe legal repercussions for any census worker who violates these regulations. It is ironic that people are less concerned about cell phone tracking devices, Facebook accounts, and credit cards, than about the census.