Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Trust in government requires access to information in time of crisis

The Governor of my home state, Rhode Island, limited the operation of state freedom of information laws among her executive orders early in the coronavirus crisis, I noted two weeks ago. She was not alone among governors in doing so.  Some limitations make sense.  Paper record access is complicated by closed offices, and open meetings by social distancing.  At the same time, care must be taken to ensure that access to government is not restricted excessively. For excess restriction, we pay a price in transparency and trust in government, and that price can compromise human health no less than the virus itself.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, writes eloquently and timely on the state of public access amid our pandemic emergency in the newly released volume 2, number 1, of The Journal of Civic Information
At a time when prompt access to accurate information could literally mean the difference between life and death, the laws mandating disclosure of information to the public are being relaxed in the name of government efficiency, while those mandating secrecy are being applied rigidly (and at times, inaccurately over-applied). This isn’t just a problem for journalists and researchers. As Harvard University health-law professor I. Glenn Cohen told The New York Times: “Public health depends a lot on public trust. If the public feels as though they are being misled or misinformed their willingness to make sacrifices – in this case social distancing – is reduced.” Perhaps the lasting legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic – and it will be a relief to speak of the pandemic in the past tense – will be a generational recommitment to restore custody of critical health-and-safety information to its rightful public owners.
The article is Frank LoMonte, Casualties of a Pandemic: Truth, Trust and Transparency, 2:1 J. Civic Info. iii (2020), and free for download with the latest edition of the journal.  Also included in the volume are research articles on public record officer perspectives on transparency, by Brett G. Johnson, University of Missouri, and on legislative conflict over the Washington State open records law, by Peggy Watt, Western Washington University, with an editor's note from David Cuillier, University of Arizona.

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