The New Your Times
May 12, 2020
In the more than half-century since President Lyndon Johnson signed the nation’s first Freedom of Information Act into law, the measure has proved to be a valuable tool for taxpayers and the press to keep a check on dealings by public officials that would otherwise be shrouded in secrecy.
FOIA requests have yielded insights into the long-running war in Afghanistan, fraud in the Medicare system and Google’s potentially monopolistic practices. And they have served the public in more mundane matters, like the placement of red light cameras or the proceedings of the local permitting board.
Freedom of information laws vary at the federal, state and municipal levels and are far from perfect. Requests may take years to fill and sometimes reveal little, particularly after redactions. Most federal and state agencies have broad leeway to interpret what will satisfy a request and when. But in principle, and generally in practice, the spirit of the laws gives the public, the press and even lawmakers themselves equal access to information.
Unfortunately, far too many agencies have also interpreted the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and necessary shelter-in-place orders as a justification for either further delaying or failing entirely to respond to FOIA requests. But local and federal government agencies continue to operate, albeit under altered circumstances, and the delays degrade the public’s trust in elected officials.