Monday, March 17, 2008

Let the Sunshine In!

One of Several Posts about Open Government Laws and Genealogy

Tim Agazio at Genealogy Reviews Online blogs today about his experiences with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That reminded me that this week (March 16-22) is Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week is a project of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, with many other participants. It is "national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know." The website also says that "Sunshine Week is a non-partisan initiative whose supporters are conservative, liberal and everything in between."

This should be of some interest to genealogists who need government records to do what we do. In the last few years, we've seen the closure or restriction of formerly public records for various reasons. We should be vigilant about such things.

There are several related issues that need to be "daylighted" with respect to public records and genealogy. First, we need to insist that public agencies follow existing law such as FOIA and similar laws in the states. As a former official of the federal government and of the nation's largest state government, I can tell you that agencies hate open government laws, for a number of reasons.

Second, we must be watchful when legislation or regulations are proposed that would restrict or eliminate access to public records of legitimate genealogical value. The overbreadth of such legislation or regulations often will place us at the sometimes uncomfortable intersection of Liberty and License. It is said that License leads to Identity Theft, Other Crime, and Terrorism. But in these United States, there is a balance to be struck. Then it is also said that the Price of Freedom is a Loss of Privacy. In this gloomy world view, we can't even be trusted with information about ourselves.

Genealogists are not anti-privacy. On the contrary, my experience has been that genealogists are keenly aware and respectful of the privacy implications of their work. So as we push to keep records open, we should recognize and avoid overbroad openings of law. For example, it's almost never necessary to have the Social Security Number of a living person. We should support efforts to redact that type of information from records open to the public. We should educate the public and others in our vocation about the appropriate use of confidential information. We should remove inappropriate information from our published works.

We should learn, understand, and use the open records laws. We should learn and understand the privacy laws. And we should participate in events like Sunshine Week.

The Sunshine Week website has a host of information that may be useful to genealogists. Some of the best resources are found on the FOI News page. I especially like the State FOI News put out by the Freedom of Information Center of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

[Note that sometimes genealogical records are managed under different rules, and not the generic information statutes.]

I wrote about the basics of FOIA last August. I'll have more to say about FOIA and similar state laws as a genealogical research source over the next few days.

1 comment:

Terry Thornton said...

Craig, Thanks for this important look at some much needed "sunshine." A few years ago following my auto accident, I attempted to determine through a FOIA action if the driver of the vehicle which nearly killed us was a citizen of the USA. Citing
privacy concerns, however, the FOI request was denied. The driver, however, was not only illegal; he had used someone else's SS number to obtain first a Florida driver's license which he gave up to Tennessee swearing he'd never had nor used a SS number. Tennessee's State Attorney General's Office was not concerned nor interested that I could determine.