“A free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.”
Some laws sound nice on paper, like the preceding excerpt from New York State’s Freedom of Information Law. But the value of any legislation isn’t determined by how eloquently it reads; it’s based on whether the laws are actually carried out by those with the responsibility to do so.
As journalists in this country, luckily, we have many tools in our toolboxes to help us do our jobs — including the federal Freedom of Information Act and similar laws individual states have adopted. Unfortunately, in reality, those tools have only so much power — and sometimes, that power is cut off.
One recent case in point involves the Riverhead Central School District. While many laws include provisions meant to prohibit the disclosure of certain information, it’s sometimes the way specific government agencies interpret those laws that determines what gets released to the public.
In the case of a legal agreement that had already been reached between the school district and one of its employees — which both sides signed in May — the district claimed that releasing the settlement document to this newspaper would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” This explanation came months after the employee, whose personal privacy the district alleged it was protecting, shared her story with the press — a story involving her assertion that the school district had discriminated against her due to a disability.
After being denied by the school district, the News-Review eventually obtained a copy of the settlement by filing a FOIL request with another government agency. The settlement showed that the district agreed to rehire the employee it previously fired.
The logical question, then, is exactly whose privacy was the district trying to protect?
Closed doors, denials for publicly available information and long — sometimes illegally long — lag times to get information only invite greater media scrutiny. If a government is not responsive and responsible to the public, what kind of government is that?
The fact that one public agency granted access to information the local school district decided not to share is a scary reflection of what information the district believes should be shared publicly and what information it believes should be considered private. Unfortunately, not every request for information can be redirected to another agency.
Transparency and openness should be a goal pursued by all governmental agencies, including school districts, fire districts and the like. It’s likewise the role of the citizenry to expect as much.