Freedom of information means the right of all of us to find out what's going on in government. It's an essential part of freedom of speech and press. But whether meetings and records are open to us depends on whim - unless we have strong laws to let the sunshine in.
The Society of Professional Journalists' annual Freedom of Information report just out says that newsgatherers in the past year have faced more and more obstacles to collecting information. But reporters are getting to know the laws better and becoming more aggressive in using them.So it was in Utah this past week. A bill to amend the Utah Open Meetings Law failed to get out of the House Rules Committee in the face of united opposition by the press and a strong lobbying effort.
The Utah law has some ambiguities. Generally it provides that public bodies can't do our business in secret. The major exceptions are when collective bargaining strategy, investigations of criminal conduct, or character and competence are being discussed. The Legislature was considering adding to these exceptions those sessions in which "economic development" is the topic.
It may be unwise to pick out a few of the many people in the press who gave generously of their own unpaid time to defeat the measure. But I'm emboldened to cite two whose work I know stands out, Valerie Schulthies, a Deseret News reporter, and Ernie Ford, managing editor at KSL-TV.
Schulthies is a member of the Utah SPJ Freedom of Information Committee and a registered lobbyist for the group. She avoids reporting on the Legislature as a potential conflict of interest. She was also the person most responsible for calling up Utah papers and galvanizing editorials against the bill.
The League of Cities and Towns and some other government groups who sought the change argued that economic development can be stymied by premature discussion. But Schulthies says no company is going to make a decision on siting a project on whether the papers run a story about it.
"It's more convenient for everyone to work in secrecy. But the public shouldn't be shut out because it's inconvenient for the developers," she says.
Ford, who is on the national SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, has for years been the chief spokesman for open meetings and records here.
At the Utah Press Association's convention last week, Ford told legislative leaders that he couldn't think of any story out of government that doesn't involve economic development in some way.
One legislator at the luncheon said that some lawmakers "just aren't comfortable talking about some matters in public." Anyway, "so much goes on in informal meetings it doesn't serve a purpose to say everything should be open, because really it isn't."
That's true. Much public business is done in informal or "executive" star chamber sessions. I have never heard a better answer than Ford's to that one: "It's sad that people elected to office for their opinions should be afraid to express them."
Ford said open exposure doesn't seem to hurt many legislators, since few fail to get elected. "The voters seem to have a considerable tolerance for people who speak out."
Some legislative discomfort with sometimes muddled reporting of meetings also no doubt underlies the attempt to restrict open meetings.
At least one lawmaker told the press association that while some reports are right on the button he has often been astounded by inaccuracies in others. He has even wondered if he and the reporter had been at the same meeting.
Ford is also enlightened enough to recognize that opportunity to cover government doesn't always translate to covering it with great understanding. He even admitted that TV has a hard time dealing with the Legislature because its reports are so abbreviated and the sessions are visually dull: "The camera shoots down at the chamber showing ants running around, but it doesn't tell much about what is really going on." Nonetheless, the opportunity to attend public proceedings is the first essential to public understanding.
- ANOTHER FREE PRESS HERO of the past week is bookseller Sam Weller. He rose up in indignation after the Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on the head of author Salman Rushdie. The Iranian set off a seismic wave of fear of terrorism among booksellers, particularly the national chains, who played right into his hands. But Weller said he was in the business of selling books and would continue to sell this one. He was incensed at the attempt to suppress a book as blasphemous, likening the threats to the book burning of the Nazis.
I also liked the response of New York Times columnist William Safire, who wrote that "we regularly denounce books, plays and films that offend religious sensibilities, often with great self-righteous fervor, but suppression is not an option." Safire called the panicky decision by the chain bookstores to refuse to sell the books "craven" and urged readers to patronize their local independent booksellers.
Many writers and other intellectuals also have rushed to defend not necessarily Rushdie's work but his right to state his views without fear of censorship and death. Among the most courageous of these was Edward Said, a Columbia University expert on the Middle East, of Palestinian descent, who helped organize a rally in support of Rushdie in New York last week.