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Public records tougher to view since Sept. 11

By The Associated Press


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ORLANDO, Fla. — When it comes to viewing public records since Sept. 11, the pendulum has swung from a presumption of access to tougher standards over which federal and state records can be released, lawyers and journalists said May 4.

At the same time, the federal government is demanding more information of its citizens by making it easier to authorize wiretaps and monitor e-mail and Web site traffic and suggesting that in some cases confidentiality between an attorney and client can be breached, said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum.

"The government should not be asking its citizens to trust it if the government isn't going to trust them," McMasters said at the 2002 National Freedom of Information Coalition Conference. The conference was co-hosted by the Florida First Amendment Foundation, Florida Bar Media & Communications Law Committee and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.

The culture of secrecy that traditionally has pervaded the federal government was magnified after Sept. 11, said panelists during a discussion on public records.

Government Web sites were cleansed of sensitive military information about the whereabouts of aircraft carriers, Army chemical weapons stockpiles and nuclear power plants. Government maps of the nation's gas and oil pipelines have been removed.

The U.S. Geological Survey recalled a CD-ROM containing information on bodies of water after deciding too much sensitive information was on it. To the chagrin of librarians, the agency asked libraries to take them out of circulation and destroy them, said Patrice McDermott, an assistant director of the American Library Association.

The information is not required to be made public.

"At the moment, the balance is all on one side," said McDermott, a panelist.

In addition, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed agency leaders to be cautious in releasing records to journalists and others. A month after the attacks, Ashcroft said in a memo that the Justice Department would back agencies that legitimately turn down requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

During the panel discussion, Karen Finnegan, an attorney with the Office of Information and Privacy in the Justice Department, said the memo has been taken out of context by the media and that "it doesn't tell agencies not to comply with FOIA."

Each new administration puts out a FOIA memo outlining its views. Ashcroft's memo marked a return "back to the basics" compared to former Attorney General Janet Reno's management style, which was "let's give them as much as we can as long as there's no foreseeable harm," Finnegan said.

"We're not trying to shut down FOIA," said Finnegan, who added that many of the restrictions are being implemented with the expectation there will be more attacks.

"I think that's why the federal government is going overboard right now," Finnegan said. "I don't know if things will change with another attack because things are really rigid right now."

At the state level, only six states have narrowed public-records laws since Sept. 11: Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Virginia and Washington. The fact that 44 states did not follow suit is an indication of the restraint many state lawmakers showed, said Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri.

It was a sentiment echoed by state lawmakers at the conference.

"At a time when people could have panicked, I thought we pulled back from the abyss," said Florida Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville.

In Florida, 135 bills were introduced last year creating further exemptions to the state's vaunted Sunshine Laws. Less than a dozen passed. This year, 150 bills were introduced. A final number isn't available since the Legislature is still meeting in special session.

"Florida has had a stellar reputation for open government," said Barbara A. Petersen, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. "But that reputation is beginning to slip."


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Analysis First Amendment advocates, state lawmakers say middle ground has been found that protects sensitive information but doesn't unnecessarily freeze out public.  05.21.02

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By Ken Paulson Using the terrorist attacks as justification for this new wave of efforts to close public records would be too easy — and misleading.  03.24.02

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ASNE, APME meet to consider ways to deal with increasing tendency of governments to withhold information and to make previously available records secret.  06.12.02

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Analysis Despite crackdown on information access since Sept. 11, FOI advocates are continuing to fight for public's right to know.  04.03.02

Governor's office rebuffs idea of limiting Arkansas' FOI law
'[L]et me be clear on this: Your efforts to amend the FOI are NOT authorized by the governor,' Mike Huckabee's liaison tells agency director.  08.12.02

Newspaper editors worry about access to public records
Panel discusses concerns about war on terrorism's effect on records access at Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas conference.  09.23.02

Report: Texas law enforcement agencies frequently violate FOI law
Survey of 14 counties finds officers often respond to information requests with personal questions, ID requests, lectures about privacy.  01.06.03