While the government pays lip service to the fact that when a member of the public (and part of the popular sovereign in the United States - "We the People") seeks records of its public servants, the government, to verify how they do their jobs, that's supposed to help the country remain democratic, and not autocratic.
And, when a member of the public, a taxpayer, whose money was already used to create those public records, is seeking access to those public records, such access - my opinion - should be given for free, since those records were already created using that public records' money.
This year, President Obama has signed an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act creating a presumption of disclosure to public records.
Now, the U.S. Department of Justice offered a policy, and - allegedly - sought public comments on it, that when a certain type of information is released to one member of the public, it must be published for all the public to see - a "release to one - release to all" policy.
Of course, the U.S. Department of Justice only gave two weeks for public comment,
see start date of December 6, 2016
and end date of December 23, 2016
and sought public comment on such an important issue right before Christmas, when people are concerned with pre-holiday preparations and not with public comments on access to public records - which is a very questionable approach.
I think that the policy is reasonable and should have been introduced long time ago. There is no reason why documents released under public access requests under FOIA (and any other access to public records statute) should be made available only to the requesting party, and not to all members of the public - and I do not see why such information should be provided for a fee.
If our government, claiming that it is acting on behalf of us, as taxpayers and members of the U.S. popular sovereign, and claiming that it is acting within its authority and in our (public) interest, created those documents, there is no reason why the government should charge its boss - the popular sovereign - for seeing those documents, if only and simply to check on its performance.
If such requests are deemed to be under the law (as they are) in the public interest, the government should not be able to charge fees for release of such documents, and deter the public from seeking public records.
Yet, many comments that were posted during this very short window of comment before Christmas, are opposing the policy.
In this comment, let's call it Comment # 1, for example, the unnamed author (I wonder why comments were allowed to be unnamed - making me, as a member of the public, reasonably question whether the comment was from a member of the public, or from the agency's insider) raises 2 questions:
- that the policy will discourage requests by "journalists" and "companies" to file FOIA requests - and will reduce the amount of fees agencies will receive; and
- that the policy will create another "unfunded mandate", that the requirement to post all documents on the Internet will be a "tremendous burden" - which, of course, it won't be if effective posting technologies are implemented.
So, at least announcement of a policy that, if a certain public record is asked for three times, it must be posted for all - is good, since, at least practically, it is not difficult to have three people agree to file FOIA requests for the same public document - in order o satisfy the policy.
Public records should be made available to the public - it is an axiom.
And, access to public records should not be either costly, or cumbersome, or made by the government into a game of jumping through fire hoops, with risks to one's livelihood, liberty or life, or into a game where the winner is not the public, but a media source having the most money to pay the fees or to hire an expensive lawyer to sue the agency for access to records - and providing information to the public for money.
There should be laws in place severely punishing for any attempts of the government to stall disclosure of public records, and especially to punish those requesting public records, in any form of punishment or adverse action, for seeking or making such records public for the public - pun intended.
There should be laws in place providing benefits - monetary benefits - to members of the public who seek public records and post them, or make governmental agencies post them, for access of all the public.
I also suggest that we as members of the public put pressure on our governmental representatives to put enforcement of such laws not into the hands of the government, but into the hands of special grand juries where any member of the public can directly file his or her grievances with the grand jury, and where the grand jury is not controlled or directed by any member of the legal profession or by any government official.
I suggest that such special grand juries are vested with powers to hear grievances directly from the public, without any "filters" in the shape and form of government officials like prosecutors and courts who are interested not to allow grievances about themselves to be heard and properly prosecuted.
Then, possibly, we will have FOIL/FOIA laws - and other laws ensuring government accountability - properly enforced.