Happy Birthday: Freedom of Information Act Is 40 Today

July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Its purpose was to ensure the public’s right to access information from the federal government. For the first time, the government would bear the burden for certifying why requested information should not be released, and any refusal to release information could be challenged in court.

The FOIA was nearly stillborn as Johnson was bitterly opposed to the legislation. His press secretary, Bill Moyers, described LBJ as having to be:

“…dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets and opening government files; hated them challenging the official view of reality.”

The National Security Archive at George Washington University discovered more objections to the bill as expressed in LBJ’s signing statements. Via Editors and Publishers:

Draft language from Johnson’s statement arguing that “democracy works best when the people know what their government is doing,” was changed with a handwritten scrawl to read: “Democracy works best when the people have all the info that the security of the nation will permit.” This sentence was eliminated entirely with the same handwritten markings: “Government officials should not be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.” Another scratched sentence said the decisions, policies and mistakes of public officials “are always subjected to the scrutiny and judgment of the people.”

In 40 years, the presidential impression of the FOIA has actually declined. the Bush administration has been cited as the most secretive in history. Moyers enumerates many examples in a speech he gave before the Society of Professional Journalists. BushCo intelligence agencies have also been busy re-classifying tens of thousands of documents that were previously available for years. Vice President Cheney, with the help of hunting buddy, Justice Antonin Scalia, won a case to keep secret the names of the energy company cronies on his energy task force. More recently, Don Rumsfeld’s Defense Department ejected all reporters from the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay – except, of course, for Fox News, which was later invited back.

This record of secrecy is compounded by the outright hostility that this administration shows for the institution that our founding fathers designated to maintain our freedom. The press has been subject to accusations of treason and calls for prosecution for publishing stories on the president’s anti-terrorism programs that violate civil liberties. The House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the media for printing these stories.

As we celebrate that other anniversary that everybody seems to be talking about today, we should take a moment to recognize this 40th birthday of legislation that was enacted in the best spirit of this country’s principles. James Madison seems prescient in his statement back in 1822:

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

Happy Birthday, Freedom of Information Act.