Celebrating James Madison and the Freedom of Information Act
On March 16 we celebrate the anniversary of James Madison's birthday. Madison, traditionally viewed as the Father of the United States Constitution, is also seen by many as a defender of open government. He once wrote, "[a] popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."1 In a similar vein, he asserted that "the advancement and diffusion of knowledge" is "the only Guardian of true liberty."2
Taking effect in 1967, the FOIA has now been in place for more than forty years. By providing access to federal agency records, it has helped to ensure that the public has the means of acquiring the knowledge that Madison spoke of so eloquently. Just a few years ago, the Supreme Court reiterated the important principles underlying the FOIA:
FOIA is often explained as a means for citizens to know 'what the Government is up to.' This phrase should not be dismissed as a convenient formalism. It defines a structural necessity in a real democracy. The statement confirms that, as a general rule, when documents are within FOIA's disclosure provisions, citizens should not be required to explain why they seek the information. A person requesting the information needs no preconceived idea of the uses the data might serve. The information belongs to citizens to do with as they choose.
NARA v. Favish, 541 U.S. 157, 171-72 (2004) (citation omitted).
With Madison's views on the importance of an informed citizenry in mind, the occasion of James Madison's birthday is an excellent opportunity for federal agencies to review their FOIA operations to ensure that this vital government function is receiving the attention it deserves. The Office of Information and Privacy hosted a conference on March 12, 2008, for Department of Justice FOIA officers, which was keynoted by the Acting Associate Attorney General who serves as the Department's Chief FOIA Officer. Other agencies are likewise encouraged to host their own FOIA conferences to reinforce the importance of proper FOIA administration across the government. (posted 3/13/08)
1 Letter from James Madison to W.T. Barry (August 4, 1822), in The Writings of James Madison (Gaillard Hunt ed.).
2 Letter from James Madison to George Thomson (June 30, 1825) (on file with The James Madison Papers at The Library of Congress).
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