Flint’s water crisis might not have hit the national news until late 2015. But Flint Journal reporter Ron Fonger used the state’s Freedom of Information Act to uncover the problems months earlier. His use of FOIA to gain access to records demonstrates the importance of FOIA to journalists and members of the public.
Sadly, many in the state legislature seem to prefer limiting FOIA access rather than promoting and increasing access and smoothing the way for Michigan’s citizens to keep a close eye on their government at all levels. That’s why the American Society of News Editors’ national Sunshine Week, beginning this week, is so important.
In late February, the House Natural Resources Committee adopted an amendment to the state’s FOIA law whereas records and information relating to the “confidentiality, integrity, or availability of information systems” are exempt and specifically state that cybersecurity plans, assessments, and vulnerabilities are exempt. Although the provision also states these types of records and information are not exempt in certain circumstances, the bill would make it far harder for the public to gain access to important information.
There would also be an exemption for information that would “identify or provide a means of identifying a person that may, as a result of disclosure of the information, become a victim of a cybersecurity incident or that would disclose a person’s cybersecurity plans or cybersecurity-related practices, procedures, methods, results, organizational information system infrastructure, hardware, or software.”
Giving private entities the legal power to hide what could be vital information for the public to know is an abdication of the state’s fiduciary duty to its citizens.
Meanwhile, the state Senate is currently discussing a bill that would block public access to the video collected by police body cameras. The House has been discussing blocking access to police body camera videos since early in 2015.
Such recordings are no different than other types of police records, including arrest reports. To exempt video recordings creates an inappropriate level of government secrecy. Transparency is essential in allowing public oversight of police activities. The public has a right to more—not less—accountability from their public safety personnel.
There are many more determined efforts to limit FOIA than expand it. SB 716 and House Bill 4283 are rare exceptions. They would expand coverage of FOIA to include the governor as well as the Legislature. These offices are presently exempt from the law.
The intent of FOIA when it was passed in 1976 was to guarantee public access to observe how effectively governments at the local, county, and state levels were doing their jobs. Now more than ever, as evidenced by the water crisis in Flint, FOIA is a vital tool for citizens to do exactly that.
Jane Briggs-Bunting is president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.