Generating, accessing and protecting public/private records can accurately be described as some of the most potent issues of our age. It is a topic loaded with such significance that smart educators will begin training students about it as early as grade school – it is that essential to successful life.

An ongoing news story in Pacific County, Wash., illustrates some of the uses, possible misuses and threats to the legal foundations of American public records laws. Like agencies throughout the nation, some county offices have recently been bowing underneath the weight of records requests from citizens concerned about various aspects of governance.

This is the classic reason for laws that saw their origins in the troubled 1960s and ’70s. They let us peel back government actions and decisions to see if they appear proper and provide equal protection under the law. The lawmakers and activists who first enshrined public-records access in the U.S. realized that transparency is one of the best protections against government corruption and abuse.

On a local level, making sure agency actions aren’t driven by anything other than valid laws and regulations is of paramount importance to citizens. This transparency is a powerful deterrent to official shenanigans.

The ability to seek detailed behind-the-scenes information from government also is prone to accidental and deliberate overuse. Complying with a demand that an agency cough up every record that mentions some common word, for example, can chew up many hours of staff time. Nationwide, deliberate abuse of public records laws to consume agency resources is a weapon in the hands of anti-government factions. This expense is borne by all taxpayers.

Proliferation of government records, the ability to search them, and the ease with which citizens can request them are all driven by the vast growth in digital archiving. We swim through a world in which our actions – all the big ones and even many of the small ones – leave electronic traces. The ability to search government records also grants private individuals considerable ability to look into the lives of others, stirring legitimate concerns about invasion of privacy. The need to ensure that protected personal information isn’t accidentally lumped in with legitimately public documents is a big reason information requests can take so much time.

These concerns – about wasting agency time and some behaving as digital peeping toms – have led to moves in some states to impose additional limits on access. These efforts are fraught with concerns by the news media and open-access advocates, who fear any erosion in the public’s hard-fought ability to keep tabs on the bureaucracy. We can avoid such backward steps for democracy by:

• Speaking up to legislators and local officials in support of government transparency;

• Carefully tailoring requests for information to seek only what we genuinely need;

• Being prepared to personally pay for excess staff time and copying charges;

For their part, officials and agency employees can avoid at least some stressful information demands by cheerfully and speedily complying with all reasonable inquiries. Cooperation breeds trust.

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