FOIA Reflects the Spirit and Principles of the Great American Experiment 

Liam Gallagher 

Just under 250 years ago, a groundbreaking experiment unfolded.  One of the most significant in human history.  In 1776 the Continental Congress met, severed ties with England, and founded the United States.  Guided by the principles of freedom and self-governance, we have never looked back.  Ours is a government that truly derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed.  It is a country that has been a beacon of hope for many across the world. The liberties that we enjoy daily, such as the right to vote, to speak freely, and to practice the religion of our choice, are unavailable in many parts of the world.  But it is the job of “We the People” to protect this experiment.  It is our duty to fight tyranny and hold our government accountable.  

Throughout the history of our nation, citizens have remained watchful.  They have stepped up and fought perceived injustices.  They have challenged the government and come out victorious.  This vigilance has made our experiment successful.  Since the 1960s, Americans have wielded an additional tool.  The passage of the federal Freedom of Information Act has allowed ordinary citizens to see the decision-making process from the inside for the first time. And similar public-access laws at the state level provide a glimpse into how government is working closer to home. 

Whether citizens make open-records requests themselves or journalists use them to enlighten the public, freedom of information laws around the country have increased government accountability.  Citizens deserve to know what happens behind the scenes. They must also have input on most decisions the government undertakes. In today’s day and age, without open records, how would we achieve this level of citizen engagement?  

The clear answer is we would not. Most citizens may never initiate an open-records request.  But their disinterest or lack of awareness does not exempt them from the effect of these laws.  Those who are involved know that information received through records requests can be extremely useful in shining a light on bad actors in government. They are essential in holding our government accountable.  Though an average citizen may never engage in the open-records process, they have consumed information that has come out of this process through the media.  It is this information that is so important.  Thomas Jefferson said it best, “A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.”  The information gained through open-records requests can be vital in determining how one might vote, who one might protest, or decisions for one’s own benefit.  It is the act of being informed that allows us to stay vigilant against troublemakers who hold the reins of power.  

Government does not function in a vacuum.  The decisions of Congress and state legislatures, our president and governors, federal and state agencies, and local elected officials affect us all on a day-to-day basis.  It is important now more than ever that citizens engage in the process.  We must stay informed and ready to fight back against government overreach wherever it may occur.  For example, in Kentucky this year, a bill was filed that would have stripped our open records act of all its teeth.  House Bill 509 redefined the term “public record” to only mean something that was a final action or transaction.  Citizens would no longer have been able to see the decision-making process for themselves.  Almost everything that is available now under the law would no longer be available if House Bill 509 passed as introduced. Americans for Prosperity and others sprang into action, both publicly and privately, working to change the bill. Through many conversations with the sponsor, we were able to turn a negative bill into a positive. House Bill 509 now requires state agencies to use a work email account to do their jobs, and it sets up guidelines to punish those who fail to comply. The bill is not perfect, but if passed today, we feel our open records act would remain a strong tool to promote government transparency in the Commonwealth. As House Bill 509 progresses through the legislative process, the Americans for Prosperity Kentucky team hopes that it remains a reminder to legislators and citizens alike that transparency and open-records protections are vital to the survival of our democracy.  

Again, this is why freedom of information laws across our country are so especially important. They capture the spirit and principles that guided our Founders in the creation of the Great American Experiment. Freedom and self-governance have gotten us this far.  We have become the land of opportunity, where people come from all over the world risking their lives just to be called Americans.  We should never abandon these principles.  We need to continue to remain informed and must be willing to fight, so that we will continue to live in the greatest, freest, and most prosperous country in the world.  If we do not, if we allow states to erode open records laws, or our civil liberties, what happens next?  People will look back and say we failed in this great experiment, and let’s be honest, with how things in the world are going, with countries invading other countries, with hostilities rising every day, failure is not an option! 

Liam Gallagher is Legislative Director for Americans for Prosperity Kentucky