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tim rowland 9/2/00

September 01, 2000

Maryland's veil of official secrecy is unacceptable in a free society



When revolution swept 18th Century Europe, it was not guns, swords, barricades or even the guillotine that mustered reform. It was information.

Pamphleteers, early newspapermen, such as Jean Paul Marat and his L'Ami du Peuple, pried the lids off barrels of secrecy and corruption throughout the monarchy.

True, not all this information was entirely accurate. Marie Antoinette almost certainly never said "Let them eat cake." (The greater offense, to Frenchmen, was that this Austrian woman could somehow never get comfortable with the French custom of a queen's giving birth in public).

Also true, Marat was murdered for his trouble as the once-noble revolution soured. Among his considerable enemies, he wrote, was "...the Municipality whose secret plans I disclosed, whose dangerous purposes I unveiled, whose felonies I unearthed."

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Perhaps they were a tad overzealous - people who imagine bias in the media today ought to be glad they didn't live in 1789 - but Marat and his compatriots were on the right track: Information is freedom.

When John Wyclif began translating the Bible into English in the early 1400s, the Catholic bishops went nuts. If every common man - and, egad, woman - were able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, that would lift the veil of ignorance that the bishops so heavily depended on to manipulate the word of God to suit their own earthly purposes.

When modern-day coups have taken place in Third World nations, the first establishments the seek to take over are not the armories, but the radio stations.

Bad governors, like the Soviets or Saddam Hussein, need to control free expression because an accurately informed public has the irritating habit of making good choices - and as such, would choose to boot the thugs out on their ears.

No tyrant has ever survived open government.

When government is completely open, the people will identify injustices and demand redress. Only in secret governments can spots of rot survive and grow to contaminate the whole.

For this reason, in times of peace, government should always err on the side of full-disclosure. Information never jeopardizes the Republic, it allows it to thrive.

Taken individually, perhaps the revelations of Maryland press auditors - revelations that likely as not, legally open public records will be denied, or the person making the request will be intimidated - seem minor. How many people, after all, in the course of their daily activities wish to walk into their school administration building and demand to see the superintendent's contract?

But taken together, there is a clear and disturbing pattern that governments in Maryland err on the side of secrecy. Government employees' default position assumes that public records are not public. (For the record, many of our local government offices are good if not excellent in disseminating public information. We're fortunate, and the employees at agencies such as the planning offices, gaming commission and voter registration offices, to just name a few, deserve our thanks).

The classic excuse of those bureaucrats who were not inclined to help the public is to blame the help. "Oh we don't mean to conceal anything, it's just that the clerical folks didn't know the law."

That's nuts. Secretaries keenly know the environment established by their bosses. They know if they release a document without approval they will be reproached.

In an open government, public documents should be treated as if they are posted on a bulletin board outside the office door, to be glanced at by any passerby. Clerical workers should function as if they can expect trouble if they do not release information, not that they will be in trouble if they do.

There is no reason a public official even needs to know that a public document has been released. There is no reason an official needs to know who is making the request.

The ultimate irony is that many auditors asking for public records found themselves the target of government grilling. Who are you? Why do you want this? Who do you work for?

Freedom of information means we have the right to demand answers from our government, not the other way around. Yet the direction we're moving in is one of decreasing personal privacy and increasing public secrecy.

If you care to try this double standard, try telling the police officer who stops you for not wearing a seatbelt that you didn't know it was law. See how far that gets you. Yet three-quarters of the police agencies contacted wouldn't allow the people to inspect public records. The message is clear. Laws or for the people, the police need not comply.

That is a fearsome notion.

If a government office is doing nothing wrong, it should have nothing to hide. The presumption of openness should dictate that the simplest of public records should be available for public inspection, no questions asked.

Yet that is not how our government is operating. The legislature has the power to end this attitude of prevailing secrecy and government bureaucrats have the power to ensure that every employee in the office understands the law. They should do so.

For if a school board demonstrates such great reluctance to release something as innocuous as a superintendent's contract, how are the people to be confident that the agency is not hiding something of far greater significance?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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