Did you know that we could “exceed our rights to information” by making too many public record requests, or making a request that was too broad, or making a request with the improper motive? According to an editorial of unidentified origin, reprinted in the Northwest Opinion Column of The Bellingham Herald, “there are some people—including a few right here in our community—who have crossed the line with their information requests.” (No need to name these people…. Obviously, you know who you are.) http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/01/28/3445095/our-voice-consider-criminal-charges.html; January 28, 2014.
Using a tactic straight from the War On Terror playbook, we are told that these unnamed neighbors threaten our livelihood, drain public dollars, create untenable government workloads and risk a repressive backlash by government that would affect everyone. While we are advised of this threat, we are not provided any details regarding who, when, what or where. Apparently, these are not important.
Instead, the editorial offers a modest proposal. We should amend the Washington Public Record Act to allow the potential for criminal prosecution in connection with filing a public record request. After all, the “entities victimized by abusers of the system” need protection. Clearly, the government needs to be protected from its citizens. We will only truly be free when public record request abusers are imprisoned.
This dangerous piece of propaganda, entitled “Our Voice: Consider criminal charges to keep abusers from threatening access to open records” is built entirely on innuendo and accusation. It lacks a single verifiable fact or evidence. It attempts to manipulate people’s emotion, primarily fear, so that we will voluntarily forfeit our due process rights, and accept imprisonment as an appropriate consequence for challenging the government. Appealing to primitive instincts is an effective means of manipulating people into acting against their own best interests.
Let us acknowledge the reality. Few people would file public record requests if this right was encumbered by a threat of imprisonment. But that is the true intention of the editorial proposal… to prevent people from filing public record requests. The goal of the Washington Public Records Act, passed pursuant to the people’s initiative, is to encourage and protect public access to government information, and introducing the criminal justice system into this process undermines that goal. The results would be extremely oppressive.
Currently, a citizen’s motivation in filing a public record request is not relevant. The relevant inquiry is, and should remain, whether or not the information requested is a public record. If we amend the law and question motives, we are introducing the same social/economic justice problems that plague our criminal system. Criminal sanctions will disproportionably affect those without money and power. Do you think that a corporate attorney would ever be found guilty of filing an abusive record request? How about a community activist? How about someone with mental illness who needs help?
Remedies for abuse exist under current law, but never seem to get mentioned by those seeking to restrict our right to public information. Court sanctions can be imposed for frivolous filings, overly broad record or vague requests can be denied, and there are numerous exemptions built into the law. The government is also allowed a reasonable time to respond. And there are numerous ways that a local government can mince words, split hairs, withhold records and otherwise makes the record request process a protracted, difficult, exhausting and unpleasant experience.
I support the current law, which states that “free and open examination of public records is in the public interest, even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.” There have always been attempts to restrict the public’s right to public records, but suggesting criminal prosecution is a frightening amplification of these attacks.
If you agree, please think about making a donation to the Washington Coalition of Open Government. These good people fight daily against restrictions on open and accountable government. The chilling Northwest Opinion editorial should convince you of the need for their efforts. http://www.washingtoncog.org/join.php