Our View: Freedom of information

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Our government needs more John Cornyns.

Earlier this month, Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas, introduced a bill designed to make the federal government more open and more accessible.

The purpose of the bill, Cornyn said on the Senate floor, "is to arm the American people with the information that they need to make certain that ours remains a government whose legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed."

Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general, is a longtime champion of open government. He thinks the Declaration of Independence's promise that governmental power is derived from the consent of the governed is best fulfilled by ensuring the governed are well-informed.

We couldn't agree more.

We need more John Cornyns, not only in the U.S. Senate but also in the U.S. House, our state legislatures and our governor's mansions. We need more Cornyns on our boards of county commissioners, school boards and city councils. We need more Cornyns in our sheriff's offices, police departments and district attorney's offices. And we need more Cornyns working the counters in all of our government offices.

Ironically, the issue of keeping public information public doesn't always resonate with the public. Although it's hard to find anyone who does not think that open government is the best government, the public often shows an indifference to specific cases.

Such apathy is precisely why the keepers of government records sometimes don't feel compelled to share records that clearly belong to the public. Arrest records are public. Government officials' salaries are public. Communications between government officials and government agencies about public business are public. Public business almost always must be conducted in public.

In fact, there is very little action government agencies can take that doesn't require prompt public disclosure. Such actions are very narrowly defined.

Our forefathers understood well the role the media plays in ensuring open government, hence the prominent mention of the media and its freedoms in the First Amendment. Protecting the public's access to public information is one of the greatest responsibilities of this newspaper and of the media in general. But open records laws are not in place simply to help reporters do their jobs -- they are there to ensure the governed understand the actions of those who govern them.

By its very definition, public information should be the simplest information to obtain. Individual citizens should feel empowered to request records from City Hall, the courthouse and the police department without fear that they will be charged an exorbitant price, be forced to wait unreasonable periods of time or be turned away by government workers who don't understand or don't appreciate the responsibilities they have to the public.

Cornyn's bill is designed to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act. Among other things, the bill puts in place stricter accountability for "arbitrary and capricious" rejections of information requests and stricter timelines for complying with information requests. The bill also requires stricter reporting by government agencies on FOIA compliance.

Cornyn's bill should be approved, and those who govern -- on the federal, state and local levels -- should heed his words and follow his example. Our government functions best when the light is on.

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