Feb 16, 2014
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the cornerstone piece of legislation that keeps the federal government transparent and accountable to its citizens. Every state has similar laws to cover guaranteed public access to government information. However, a certain legislator wants to make it more difficult to access public records in Texas by making some changes to state law.
The Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Joe Straus, is trying to make it simpler for government agencies to keep the public away from their records. Straus tasked the House Committee on Government Efficiency and Reform chair to look at the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) with the aim to have extended deadlines, more lax procedures, and a lot more space for government agencies to keep their records blacked out.
The interesting part of the story is that journalists have been making his job simpler, by going along with the concept that there’s something off, even criminal, with asking a government agency to respond to numerous public records requests.
Investigative journalism consists largely of asking for a lot of public records and then combing through them for issues. That’s just what Wallace Hall, a University of Texas System regent, has been up to, yet a lot of journalists have been saying that this is a sort of “witch hunt” that merits his impeachment.
A journalist that doesn’t defend government transparency is kind of like an MD who believes Hippocrates was just giving a slight recommendation. You really have to wonder if they are in the right profession. The reporters that are complaining about someone else making too many public records requests are really betraying one of the core principles of journalism.
Journalists have to stick by their ethics, and they have to operate within their core principles. Reporters need to look at why they’re in the profession in the first place, and then they need to work from that. Changes to public records laws that make it more difficult for journalists to access government data is bad for news media.
We are probably going to see a lot of claims in the upcoming year about the price of compliance with the TPIA and how difficult and time consuming it is for the government to respond to so many requests. Some of these arguments have merit as there are certainly those that abuse the public records laws by making so many requests at once that the government can’t comply within the required time limit. They then sue the government for non-compliance with public records laws and hope to make a lot of money in the process. Clearly this is an issue that needs to be dealt with.
Straus is probably trying to solve the problem by introducing changes to the Texas public records laws. The question is can the state strike the right balance between keeping government transparent and keeping costs and abuse down? Clearly the two sides are at odds with each other and Texas is looking to address the costs and abuse side of the equation.
However, making it more difficult for citizens to access public records in Texas will make the state government less transparent and ultimately provides more opportunity for corruption.