Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, Thomas Susman, of Ropes & Gray law firm, and Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, discussed the issue of secrecy in government.
The federal Freedom of Information Act was a hot topic of conversation. The panelists discussed the act and its place in allowing the public to get access to information.
“It has become an instrument for getting information out of the files of government and out of the computers of government and into the hands of the public,” said Susman.
There are many ways the act makes this possible, he said. Two of them are that it encourages government to get information out to the public and that it allows the public to make a request, and it requires that the agency respond.
Blanton said the act has both positive and negative attributes. There are requests for information that are more than 17 years old, but there are also stories on the front pages of newspapers every day that use information garnered by the Freedom of Information Act.
Peterson talked about citizen complaints received at her organization's free hotline.
“I have been more depressed in the past six months than I have been in the past 15 years,” said Peterson, who said the amount of calls from citizens has risen dramatically, with topics ranging from difficulty getting property records to not being able to speak at a public meeting.
Audience members from around the country were able to call in and ask questions of the three panelists. Videos were shown in between the discussion documenting a reporter who had a frustrating time getting information from the Environmental Protection Act after Hurricane Katrina, a television reporter who was not able to get records of background checks performed on volunteers in Florida public schools, and a community citizen who was refused access to information about a gas pipeline rumored to be placed through his community.
After the national presentation, assistant Attorney General Martin Susec talked about Ohio's Sunshine Laws and what defines a public record. He also discussed rules of gathering public records and which records are exempt from the law.
Rep. Todd Book, D-McDermott, also spoke to the local audience, talking about the history of House Bill 9, which deals with public records. The bill will be voted on Wednesday.
Emily Salmon can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232.