The 50th Anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act?

BY PAUL WOLF, ESQ.

LYNDON JOHNSON HAD TO BE DRAGGED KICKING AND SCREAMING

On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson advised his press secretary Bill Moyers that he signed “the f—ing thing”, which is how Johnson referred to the Freedom of Information Act.

According to Moyers, “LBJ had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of open government, hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets, hated them challenging the official view of reality.”

Unfortunately, 50 years later, in 2016, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo down to village board members feel the same way about open government. Understanding the history behind the Freedom of Information Act may be as important as continuing the fight for open government today.

JOHN MOSS THE PEOPLE’S WARRIOR

In 1952 John Moss was elected to represent the Sacramento area of California in Congress. It was the era of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in which many people including Moss were wrongfully accused of being Communists.

While serving on the House Post Office and Civil Service Commission in 1954, Moss learned that 2,800 federal employees were being fired for “security reasons”. Moss asked for the records regarding the firings and his request was flatly denied. News reporters complained to Moss that they likewise had difficulty obtaining information from government officials. In 1954 Moss introduced legislation to make government records available to the public.

In 1955, Moss led the charge to form a Special Subcommittee on Government Information. It was rare for a freshmen in Congress to pull off creating a subcommittee and even rarer for a freshmen to be named chair of anything. For 10 years as chair of the subcommittee on Government Information, Moss held hearings, and issued reports about government secrecy and advocated for such information to be available to the public.

The Government Information Subcommittee noted many instances of federal agencies refusing to release information, such as:

the National Science Foundation stating it would not be in the “public interest” to disclose competing cost estimates submitted by bidders for the award of a multi-million dollar project;

the Navy ruled that telephone directories fell within the category of information relating to “internal management” and could not be released;

The Postmaster General ruled that public was not “directly concerned” in knowing the names and salaries of postal employees;

Many federal agencies refused to release minutes showing the votes taken on contract awards.

Twenty-four separate reasons were used by federal agencies to deny releasing information including: “top secret”, “secret”, “confidential”, “official use only”, “non-public”. Due to the efforts of Congressmen Moss all of the above items and more are now made available to the public.

His efforts to make government information available to the public did not make many friends for Moss. Every single federal agency that testified at hearings for the Freedom of Information Act opposed it. Attempts were made to deny funding for or to abolish Moss’s Committee. It took twelve years pushing Congress to pass it and three presidents to sign it, but on July 4, 1966, the Freedom of Information Act became law. On the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act we owe a debt of gratitude to John Moss for his many years of fighting for the public’s right to know what their government officials are doing.

THE BUFFALO NIAGARA COALITION FOR OPEN GOVERNMENT

At the local government level the Freedom of Information Law and NY Open Meeting laws are often violated due to the ignorance of elected officials or an unwillingness to comply with such laws.

Concerned citizens and organizations need to come together to address open government issues at the local level. I am creating an organization to advocate for open government in Erie and Niagara County called the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. The Coalition will be a nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization dedicated to educating government officials, and citizens about their roles and responsibilities in ensuring an open and accountable government.

I envision a board of directors consisting of attorneys, journalists, activists, academics, grant writers, and tech geeks. The first meeting for this organization will take place on Tuesday June 28th, 5:00 p.m. at the Partnership for Public Good office located at 617 Main Street (the Market Arcade Building) in downtown Buffalo. If you are interested in attending or would like more information, please contact me at paulwolf2@gmail.com.