Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws

2012-06-26 11:32:16

Although the First Amendment to the Constitution provides a freedom to speak and publish information that a person possesses, especially about government, the Constitution has not been construed to provide a freedom to obtain information. Thus the extent to which government must conduct business in public view or in secret is chiefly a matter for federal statutory and state law. Still, openness has long been recognized as a critical component of democracy. Louis D. Brandeis famously observed in 1914, ‘‘Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.’’ Laws ensuring public access to government have thus been termed ‘‘sunshine’’ laws.

At the federal level, the principal sunshine laws are the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act, which provide access to government records, and the Federal Advisory Committee Act and Government in the Sunshine Act, which provide access to government meetings. All but the FOIA (1966) were enacted in the 1970s, when the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal strained public confidence in government.

The federal laws were mirrored at the state level and made sunshine an entrenched feature of state government, although many states had sunshine laws dating to the early twentieth century. Today every state has an open meetings law and an open records law. They vary dramatically in their particulars. Some states, such as Florida and North Dakota, have sunshine laws in their state constitutions. Some states, such as Connecticut and Virginia, have established freedom of information councils to facilitate sunshine law compliance.


References and Further Reading

  • Leslie, Gregg, and Rebecca Daugherty, eds. Tapping Officials’ Secrets. 4th Ed. Arlington, VA: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 2001.
  • O’Reilly, James T. Federal Information Disclosure. 3rd Ed. St. Paul: West Group, 2000.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Fla. Const. Art. I, } 24
  • N.D. Const. Art. 11, }} 5-6
  • Federal Advisory Committee Act, 5 U.S.C. app. 2, Act of Oct. 6, 1972, Pub L. 92-463, 86 Stat. 770
  • Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. } 552, Act of July 4, 1966, Pub. L. No. 89-487, 80 Stat. 250
  • Government in the Sunshine Act, 5 U.S.C. } 552b, Act of Sept. 13, 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-409, 90 Stat. 1241
  • Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. } 552a, Act of Dec. 31, 1974, Pub. L. No. 93-579, 88 Stat. 1896
  • Conn. Gen. Stat. }} 1-205 to -205a
  • Va. Code }} 30-178 to -181

See also Access to Courts; Access to Government Operations Information; Access to Judicial Records; Access to Prisons; Brandeis, Louis Dembitz; Classified Information; Congressional Protection of Privacy; Freedom of Information Act (1966); Media Access to Information; Media Access to Judicial Proceedings; Media Access to Military Operations; Nixon, Richard Milhous; Right of Access to Criminal Trials