COLUMBUS – Tuesday was Freedom of Information Day, part of Sunshine Week, which highlights the need to ensure that government isn’t kept behind closed doors.
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said the annual observance began in 2003 as a reminder of the power of the First Amendment and the crucial service journalism provides for the country. He said the media protects Americans’ “right to know.”
“It’s particularly appropriate for us to be thinking about that when we’re in an election year, where there’s a lot of charges and counter-charges going on about the news media,” he said. “Sometimes, we need to just sit back and think about what life would be like without local journalism, without the watchdog role that newspapers play.”
The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966, essentially giving citizens the right to access information from the federal government. Hetzel, who also serves as president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. said people sometimes don’t realize how important the law is until it impacts their lives.
“Somebody wants to put up a large housing complex right down the street from you, and you didn’t know there was a zoning hearing. Maybe it was all done in secret,” he said. “You’re doing genealogical research on your grandmother and you need to find her birth record, or something of that nature.”
The federal government processed a record 769,000 Freedom of Information Act requests in 2015, and reduced its backlog of pending requests by about 35 percent. Hetzel said laws regarding access to information can always be improved to recognize modern-day challenges.
“Government, like everything else, creates this immense volume of information,” he said. “It can become harder to search and find information, and it can take time for officials, but that can’t be used as an excuse to deny access to information.”
Civic groups, news organizations and libraries in Ohio are among those holding events this week to build awareness of the importance of open government in American society.
More information is online at foia.gov.