Right to Know

If a news organization is gong to collect and make available data sets of information from public sources, one important step is to support a strong right-to-know law. Pennsylvania now has what is widely considered one of the worst laws and compliance with even that law is spotty. Agencies that do studies on their own problems, from the police to schools to the Department of Human Services, often fail to release those studies to the public, hiding their problems instead of helping increase public pressure to solve them.

A hearing in Harrisburg on Monday considered these questions. I talked about the babies who died in DHS care while the department and the city of Philadelphia refused to make public their own reviews that pointed out the egregious flaws in department policies and procedures. Only after The Inquirer did a series of investigatory articles did the city start to make more of this information public.

Ron Barber and Teri Henning talked about the most fundamental problem with the current law — it presumes public records are private. Ron read a powerful preamble from the West Virginia Freedom of Information law. We heard Graham Spanier of Penn State say that his university should be exempt.

When it was over, a prime sponsor of a bill to revise the law announced he agreed with us that the presumption should be in favor of a record being public. It’s an important step that can pave the way to more access to more information and better government operations.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association has more, including many links to more resources. And a new FOI Coallition is providing a place for more discussion.

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