This day is close to my heart because it allows ordinary citizens to act as watchdogs over politicians and governments. But at the same time, it also teaches us an important lesson about how much we allow others to look into our lives.
March 16 is a day to remember that access to information also has implications for our own personal liberties. Events in several cities teach us the dual role of this day. One event is organized by the First Amendment Center in Washington DC and brings together groups concerned with freedom of information and open records, from government, media and the legal system. Not by accident, the Freedom of Information Day is celebrated on March 16th; this date is also the birth date of James Madison, who is considered the "father" of the First Amendment.
For legal scholars there are also events that delve deeper into the political importance of Freedom of Information, such as "how transparent is the current administration?" An event at George Washington University will host a number of law professors that will discuss governmental transparency, particularly in light of unmet expectations for the transparency policies of the Obama Administration.
For any parent with children in college, one note of caution. Colleges under the Freedom of Information Act can and must disclose information about students upon request. Many colleges have implemented safeguards to prevent that student email addresses or living locations are disclosed under a Freedom of Information Act to companies that then want to contact students for business purposes. To avoid having email addresses or house addresses revealed, many colleges offers students privacy options that will be respected under a Freedom of Information Act request. I recommend that parents and students check for the availability of such privacy features at the college.
The Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA) evolved under Lyndon B. Johnson and went into effect in 1967. Originally intended to permit outsiders (citizens, reporters etc) access to governmental information and reduce the secrecy of governmental action, FOIA also applies to state agencies and state universities. While contributing to the transparency of government actions, exceptions exist to FOIA requests, and reporters often find documents containing redacted information citing reasons such as national defense or privacy concerns of the people involved.
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So on this day - celebrate your individual liberty and remember that sometimes being a good citizen means to ask questions. We all have representatives in the state legislature and in congress. There is nothing wrong with emailing your representatives and asking questions or requesting information on a specific topic. Full fledged Freedom of Information Act requests involve significant time and work, but an email on a topic close to your heart takes a couple of minutes.
I have written to my representatives and usually received an answer. As a citizen, remember these are your representatives and if you have a question, ask!
As the events listed above make clear, the Freedom of Information Day both celebrates our individual liberties, but also our duty as citizens to keep an eye on our representatives - after all, they represent us and were voted into office by ordinary citizens like you and me!
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