Celebrating 40 Years Dedicated to the Free Flow of Information
Frank D. LoMonte
Director, Brechner Center for Freedom of Information
We should be living in a renaissance era of public regard for government transparency. Hollywood recently presented its most prestigious Academy Award to a film, “Spotlight,” that reaches its dramatic crescendo with a judge’s decision to unseal a court file. Access to public records exposed the Flint, Mich., water-contamination crisis and brought trigger-happy police officers to justice in Chicago.
And we should be living at the height of cheap and instantaneous access to information, with the digitization of vast warehouses of public knowledge, and communications transitioning from paper to instantly reproducible electronic messages, spreadsheets and databases. Information that once took weeks to retrieve from warehouses straight out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” now lives in a universally accessible cloud.
That these promises are as-yet unrealized is the unfinished mission of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, which this year celebrates four decades of service to the cause of liberating civically useful information for the public good.
As the nation’s preeminent academic think-tank dedicated to the public’s right-to-know, the Brechner Center has the responsibility of thought leadership toward modernizing the culture of government to match its technological capabilities. It’s not enough that, in the oft-quoted words of futurist Steve Brand, information wants to be free. The people who hold the information under lock-and-key must want it to be free.
With fewer “learned intermediaries” to bring the public essential civic information, information must be pushed out to citizens directly, as well as to strapped news organizations that no longer reliably can yank it out.
Since the demoralizing 2016 election campaign in which “fake news” entered the popular vocabulary, tens of millions of dollars have poured into New York and Washington, D.C., to fortify an embattled news industry against incursions on fundamental press freedoms. That’s important and valuable. But the news that most affects people’s daily lives doesn’t happen inside the beltway. It happens in Topeka and Tallahassee, in courthouses and school-board chambers, where secrecy too often persists unchallenged. Serving journalism’s “99 percent,” the thinning ranks of information providers whose watchfulness makes a functioning democracy possible, is our enduring mission at Brechner.
It is not enough just to study, document and publicize these problems. The Brechner Center commits itself to developing pro-transparency public-policy solutions and bringing together stakeholders to create positive change.
In accepting the 1965 Alfred I. duPont Foundation award for his prescient commentaries on racial injustice, broadcaster Joseph L. Brechner, for whom the Center is named, delivered remarks that could have been written today, as America’s news infrastructure faces existential threats from outside and within.
“Freedom spoils without its use. The right of criticism, protests and debate is a cherished American heritage. Intelligent free men have a right and responsibility to speak freely; and silence or neutrality of opinion in times of vital issues may be as great a danger to the perpetuation of our democracy as any external or internal subversion.”
Entering our fifth decade of public service, we at the Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information rededicate ourselves to fulfilling the late Mr. Brechner’s charge, to ensure that all Americans can effectively participate in self-governance and feel empowered to do so.
To mark the Brechner Center’s 40th anniversary, we asked some distinguished alumni who’ve come through the Center’s doors across the decades to contribute to a “virtual symposium.” We invited them to address (1) the place of the Brechner Center in the history of the open-government movement, or (2) a contemporary access issue on which informed leadership can move public policy in a favorable direction. You’ll see in the accompanying essay series that there is neither a shortage of challenges nor a scarcity of thoughtful leaders within the extended Brechner Center family dedicated to meeting them.