'Sunshine laws' put information within your grasp

March 13, 2005|by Terry Headlee

One of the more interesting ironies of the Freedom of Information Act is that it was spearheaded not by the press, but by a California congressman who was tired of getting the runaround from government agencies.

U.S. Rep. John Moss of California became frustrated from having repeated requests denied for vital public documents from the federal government. He conducted a series of investigations and congressional hearings that eventually led to passage of the federal Freedom of Information Act in 1966.

The bill was signed into law by then-President Lyndon Johnson. Since that time, the federal law has triggered parallel "sunshine laws" in all 50 states, including Maryland, where it is referred to as the Public Information Act.

While the federal FOI law has since been the subject of more than 20 U.S. Supreme Court cases - some of which have weakened its original intent - it still remains a significant piece of legislation that benefits anyone who has ever tried to get a document from a government agency.


The law is your guarantee that government information must be accessible to everyone. As noted by the First Amendment Center, the law is based "on the presumption that individuals have a right to know what their government is up to and that government agencies have a duty to provide full disclosure of all records that are not specifically and reasonably exempt."

Today and tomorrow, we will be recognizing the importance of the historic FOI law in our newspaper and what it means, not just to the media, but to every citizen in this country.

The package of stories, which start on the front page, was coordinated and prepared by Senior Reporter Andrew Schotz with assistance from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Among the stories that appear in today's paper and in Monday's edition:

· Find out what happened when The Herald-Mail filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for all of the Public Information Act requests filed by others with the Washington County government, county Board of Education and the City of Hagerstown in 2004.

· One story provides information on how to access The Herald-Mail's FOI Web site, which includes, among other things, sample letters that Tri-State area residents can use to file their own requests.

· If you want to file a request with Washington County government, the county Board of Education or the City of Hagerstown, we'll give you the contact information to do it.

· There are several short stories about local residents and others who used the law to access payroll records and government meeting minutes, among other things.

We also are publishing a compilation of types of public records. It tells where you can find them and why you need them.

For example, did you know that physician records, voter registration records, nursing home inspection reports and birth certificates are all public information?

Business and professional licenses (such as those needed by contractors and real estate agents) are also public information so that you can determine whether a business is licensed to work in the county or whether any violations or complaints have been filed against the person or business.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger once said, "People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing."

I couldn't put it better myself - so I won't try. Please take the time to read these important stories. I'm fairly certain that the information will come in handy for you someday.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached by phone at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at

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