Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Protecting Freedom

Let's start from the notion that it's our government. We vote, we pay the freight; whatever government does, it does in our name. Government should answer to us. That, in a nutshell, is why we have a right to see most government records.

Just last year, the General Assembly took up a mammoth re-write of the Freedom of Information Act. While government records are, by and large, public records, FOIA sets the terms by which we can get access to those records, even when government employees don't want to give them to us.

Last year's FOIA re-write stripped away years of exclusions, road blocks, and other barnacles that had formed on the law, all of which had contributed to a culture that too-often turned FOIA on its head.

The new FOIA law, signed last summer and effective since January 1 of this year, is now what's on the books. Read it. It's a good law.

But already there are efforts to start rebuilding those road blocks, exclusions, and barnacles. It can be hard enough to win reform. ICPR has been negotiating reform laws since the 1998 Gift Ban Act, and many times, we've been told to wait while a new law took hold before asking for more in that area. So it's galling to see measures to unravel parts of the new FOIA so soon after the new FOIA took effect.

Take HB 5154, for instance. This measure, which passed the House last week, amends the Personnel Record Review Act to say that employee evaluations may not be released under FOIA. Last year's FOIA bill negotiations very carefully considered what employee records should be covered. The "personnel file" exemption was one of the most abused under the old FOIA and how that provision should be rewritten was the subject of much deliberation. Now, less than a year after those talks, and barely three months after the new law took effect, the House has passed a measure to carve out an exception to that new law.

HB 5154 is troubling on its own, but it is hardly the only bill to create additional opportunities to deny FOIA requests. SB 315 makes it illegal to disclose public school teacher, administrator, or superintendent evaluations, to anyone under any circumstances. SB 315 is now better known as Public Act 96-861; it was passed by the General Assembly in January and signed by the governor two days later. And several other proposals to exempt public records from public access are still pending.

We understand that no law is forever. But we're surprised that the steady drip-drip-drip of changes is so quickly becoming a torrent. We urge the General Assembly to take pride in the system they created last year, and to let it take flight before picking it apart.

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