A Teleconference on Open Access to Government Information
On Monday March 13th, I attended the Sunshine Week teleconference “Are we safer in the dark?” meeting held at the Stanford Center for Education Excellence, organized by the Law Librarians of Puget Sound (LLOPS) and the Washington State Library. Sunshine Week, currently in its second year, aims to increase public awareness of importance of open government. Surprisingly, I was the only iSchooler in attendance, surrounded by a number of librarians from Gallagher and representatives from other interested groups such as the League of Women Voters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only men present were those on the screen and one presenter for the local panel section of the event. The event was coordinated by Ann Hemmens, Gallagher librarian and current president of LLOPS, and Elizabeth Iaukea from the Washington State Library. After the broadcast ended, our meeting continued with a brief panel discussion with Hugh Spitzer, an attorney from Foster Pepper PLLC and affiliate professor at the UW School of Law, and Jean Godden, Seattle City Councilmember and Vice-Chair of the Public Safety, Governmental Relations and Arts Committee.
TFrom a sound stage within this Seattle Public Schools building, we joined similar groups around the country in observing three short videos on information access problems: environmental information post-Hurricane Katrina, screening of volunteers in Florida public schools, and efforts to obtain information about a proposed oil and gas pipeline that would run through a rural community. Each story highlighted how communities may be put at risk by agencies withholding information under claims of protecting privacy or national security. While the first two stories were obviously upsetting, the third was most frustrating and infuriating to me personally. Affected property owners were unable to organize against the proposed pipeline because the route was considered sensitive security information, but after the plan had been approved the map was available in their public library.
Live from the National Press Club in Washington DC: A panel discussion was held between each video and moderated by Geneva Overholser, Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism. The panelists, Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, Thomas M. Susman from Ropes & Gray, and Barbara Petersen, executive of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, commented on the issues raised by the video and respond to questions from the audience present at their broadcasting location in Washington D.C. and from the larger audience submitting questions via phone or e-mail. Washington State was well represented by two questions from Vancouver and another two from Shoreline Community College. The questions were thoughtful and the discussion was engaging, but unfortunately it was not exactly a balanced panel. The panelist and audience seemed to echo Ms. Petersen’s sentiment when she stated that she felt more depressed than she had in fifteen years due to current government restrictions on information access and distribution. The discussion touched on many issues recently brought up on LIS 526, Government Publications, regarding the classification of documents after they have been requested, the problems of receiving documents in response to a FOIA request that have huge chunks blacked out, and what happens when all government information goes online and withdrawing publications becomes much easier – just the deletion of a file rather than the recall of thousands of print versions.
Following the event, I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Iaukea who expressed regret that the iSchool had such a slim showing. Did we know about it? Yes; Robyn Hagle, the LLOPS iSchool liaison had posted a notice to iAnnounce and information had circulated on the WLA listserv. Okay, I know we all set our mental e-mail filters pretty high these days. Where else might we have encountered a notice? Surprisingly, I found very little information on the websites of a number of the sponsors. SLA had nothing on their website, and I had to search for notices on the ALA, AALL and Washington State Library sites. The notices I did find were generally bulletins posted by people like Ann Hemmens who were coordinating viewing sites. Curiouser and curiouser. The event was interesting (although occasionally preaching to the choir), and it was intriguing to hear speakers who are actively engaged in making government information available to the public. I would recommend marking your calendars for next year’s Sunshine Week to see what events and articles develop. After all, we are just a bunch of information access geeks, aren’t we?
Please visit the events page at openthegovernment.org or find out more about Sunshine Week at www.sunshineweek.org.