Editorial: Government agencies are holding our records and trying to keep us from seeing them; that’s not right

Editorial
Dallas Morning News
Originally published Sept. 21, 2017

Here’s an alarming new threat to the public’s right to know: More and more government agencies around the country are suing private citizens who request access to public information, in order to keep them from seeing the records.

Outrageous.

There’s no better protection to our democracy than our ability to hold the people we elect to public office accountable for how they’re spending our tax dollars and conducting our business. These are our records, after all, and these agencies are stomping on citizens’ right to keep track of what government is doing.

Most state open records laws allow requesters to sue agencies if they’re denied records, in order to force the information’s release. The Associated Press reports that a growing number of school districts, municipalities and agencies are turning the tables, suing requesters and asking judges to rule that the information doesn’t need to be turned over, citing privacy or sensitivity concerns. What’s more, even if the agencies are ultimately ordered to turn over the records, they typically will not have to pay the other side’s legal bills.

Freedom-of-information advocates see it for exactly what it is: a new way for governments to hide records, delay disclosure and intimidate critics.

What are these agencies trying to hide? Plenty, it turns out. Examples include data on student performance in Oregon, records on employees accused of sexual assault on a college campus in Kentucky, and information on how many school employees are being paid to stay home in Louisiana.

These agencies are sending a disturbing message: that these records are none of the public’s business. This is nothing more than an attempt to dissuade citizens from making requests for information.

Texas, once known as a national leader in transparency, has been moving in the wrong direction in recent years. Though the Texas Public Information Act prohibits governmental entities from suing citizens who request records, there’s a big gray area for nonprofits that receive government money or property and claim they are not government entities.

And there were setbacks in Austin on repairing damaging rulings that cut off public access to contracts. More and more cities and school districts are denying access.

We’re glad to see there’s an effort underway to have lawmakers study the Texas Public Information Act before the 2019 session and make recommendations on how it can be improved.

We urge our leaders here and throughout the country to remember that open government is the linchpin to assuring trust, that officials are representing our best interests. Transparency matters. The taxpayers who elect these officials deserve not to be kept in the dark.