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Under Obama, information may be freer again For all the good it has done, the Freedom of Information Act has been resented at times.

The rookie congressman was frustrated. Rep. John E. Moss was a champion of consumers' rights but, as he tried to do his job for his constituents, he couldn't shake loose the government information he needed.

So he took action. Over the next 10 years, the California Democrat launched investigations, wrote reports and held hearings about the restrictions on government-generated information that could help citizens.

His tenaciousness got the job done. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson -- reluctantly by some accounts -- signed the Freedom of Information Act into law.

The act stated that any person can make requests for government information. Citizens who make requests don't have to identify themselves or explain why they want the information.

The concept was simple: The workings of government are "for and by the people" and the benefits of government information should be made available to everyone.

"This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits," Johnson said.

Over the years, citizens and journalists alike have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose wrongs and create reform.

Here's a close-to-home example. Looking at court records for 16,000 cases, Buffalo News investigative reporter Patrick Lakamp exposed the light treatment of drunken drivers in local courts and identified by name the most lenient town and village justices.

One small-town justice said that pleading down to a less serious offense was so prevalent that someone had to be "very, very, very, very drunk" to be convicted of driving while intoxicated. After The News investigation ran in 2005, that particular justice's DWI conviction rate jumped from 16 percent to 46 percent. And because of public pressure, plea-bargaining policies got tougher. Now it's far more difficult to get away with DWI.

Those changes speak to the power of information. When there's no information, there's no public exposure and pressure, and, probably, no change.

More recently, The News' James Heaney used the state FOI law to obtain documents that show that some state legislators spend up to $1 million a year to operate their individual offices. So far, no reform has resulted, but at least citizens are aware of how their tax dollars are being spent, and legislators know we're watching them.

For all the good it has done, the Freedom of Information Act has been resented at times, when government officials -- as is often their nature -- would prefer to work in secrecy.

One of former President George W. Bush's first moves upon taking office in 2001 was to restrict the Freedom of Information Act, allowing government officials more leeway in denying information requests.

The Bush administration's tendencies toward secrecy grew exponentially after 9/1 1. Bush's move didn't stop journalists and citizens entirely in their quests for information, but it certainly made their efforts more frustrating.

Now that change has been reversed. President Obama decisively spun it back around with his presidential memo issued Jan. 21, only one day after his inauguration. "All agencies should adopt a presumption of disclosure," Obama wrote, adding that "in the face of doubt, openness should prevail."

Michael Doyle of McClatchy's Washington bureau reports that fulfilling that promise may be difficult because the number of federal information-access officers has dwindled dramatically.

Still, it's heartening to know that the Obama administration's intentions are good. As International Press Institute Director Jonathan Fritz put it: "A free flow of information and opinions is society's oxygen."

Moss died in 1997 but somewhere, one imagines, he's smiling.
e-mail: editor@buffnews.com1

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