You have a right to know what the government is up to. Congress signed that right into law with the Freedom of Information Act back in 1966. Anyone can request access to information from any federal agency. When it works, it’s transparency in action. When it doesn’t, you can take the government to court.
This arrangement would surely please our fourth President, James Madison. His unflinching advocacy for open government played a vital role in drafting the Bill of Rights. These first 10 amendments to the Constitution curbed federal powers by protecting individual rights. We salute Madison’s legacy on March 16, Freedom of Information Day.
The date would probably make Madison proud. The designated celebration of our right to know is also his birthday. He would be puzzled by the number of times Congress, and even presidents, have tried to modify this extraordinary law. We’re pretty sure he would be relieved to know that the statute has survived our politicians and still serves us well.
Just because you have this remarkable right to know doesn’t mean the government always thinks you should. There are exclusions from FOIA including classified information, national defense documents and foreign policy records. Exemptions also include geological information and financial institutions, but none of this has to stop you from trying.
An endless lineup of public and private organizations, publications and individuals exercise their right to know every year. It isn’t hard, but success is not guaranteed. Still, we can credit FOIA requests with historic revelations like Nixon’s abuse of the FBI. We can also credit the right to know with less consequential information like the CIA’s files on UFOs.
So how should we celebrate Freedom of Information Day? If you want to flex your right to know, the National Archives explains how to file a FOIA request. If you want to just pause and marvel at having the right to know, we join you. It is up to us to keep our government in line. So let us smile and be grateful to Madison for giving us the power.