George W. Bush hasn’t even been out of office for half a year, but some advocates, librarians and historians are already labeling his administration the most secretive ever. With that open-government nightmare over, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) expressed a sense of relief at AAN’s First Amendment Lunch on Saturday, June 27.
“The last eight years or so were really bad,” Lucy Dalglish told the crowd.
But despite a less secretive administration in Washington, Dalglish, who was introduced by AAN First Amendment chair Tim Redmond as “the person you call when you want information on why you can’t get information,” still expressed grave concerns for information freedom. Mainly, she said she was worried about how the declining financial condition of the newspaper industry will affect the ability of leading news organizations to fight open-government cases in courts — often an expensive proposition.
“The biggest problem in the next few years isn’t going to be the president,” she said. “It’s going to be money.”
Dalglish did say that there were several positive signs on the horizon when it comes to open government. She said some major foundations were beginning to look at funding state open government coalitions to give them the ability to take cases to court rather than giving up when denied access. She also said we should soon start to see implementation of a 2007 amendment to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that aims to make it easier for citizens and media organizations to recover attorneys’ fees in FOIA fights.
Last but not least, she said there were encouraging signs coming from the White House’s new occupant. She pointed to the Obama administration’s reversal of the notorious Ashcroft memo — a 2001 directive that ordered federal agencies to err on the side of secrecy when deciding whether or not to release something via FOIA — as just one sign of definite progress.
“Our biggest burgeoning problem is in the court system,” Dalglish said. More and more judges are figuring out ways to seal previously available information, she said. What’s more, Dalglish said, on the federal level there are thousands of criminal cases — mostly drug-related — that are not open to the public.
She explained that when someone agrees to a plea deal, the case is sealed — and that there’s no automatic mechanism to re-open the cases after they are no longer active. So thousands of cases sit closed, she said, and thousands of individuals sit in federal prisons without the press being able to find out why.
After her speech, Dalglish took questions from the audience, including one from Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman on libel law and website comments. Currently, as per Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), publishers aren’t legally accountable for comments on their websites, even though they are for letters to the editor that run in print. Dalglish predicted that Congress would likely revisit and revise the CDA in the next two or three years to erase that disparity.
To read the full text of Dalglish’s prepared remarks, click here.