Access to Government Operations Information

In a democratic society, the informed citizen must have an affirmative right to gain access to information concerning the operations of government. Often referred to as ‘‘transparency,’’ the public’s right of access makes oversight possible and helps ensure that the government will be accountable to the people.

Access to the three branches of government varies in scope. Executive branch agencies are subject to the federal Freedom of Information and Sunshine laws, which create a presumptive right of access, subject to specific and limited exemptions. The legislative branch is generally open to public observation and review as a matter of practice and sometimes of statute. The Supreme Court declared that public and press access to criminal trials is guaranteed by the First Amendment in Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980), and common law and court rules are designed to keep most other court proceedings open.

The rights of access to other instrumentalities of government are less clear. Although the Supreme Court has recognized that news gathering is protected by the First Amendment, the precise parameters are vague. For example, the scope of a First Amendmentbased right of media access to military operations remains ill defined and a source of constant tension; competing interests of the government in maintaining operational security and the right of the public to know are imperfectly balanced. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terrorism, the government closed down access to many sources of government operations information in the name of protecting national security.

JANE E. KIRTLEY

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980) 

See also Access to Judicial Records; Freedom of Information Act (1966); Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws; Media Access to Information; Media Access to Judicial Proceedings; Media Access to Military Operations; 9/11 and the War on Terrorism; Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980)

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