The First Amendment assures there will be no prohibition on press freedom, but it does not ensure that government must cooperate in any way with a free press. That is where laws such as South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act are essential for press and public to have access to information.
Observed this week around the nation, Sunshine Week draws attention to the principle of openness that is the backbone of our governmental system. A public without knowledge of its government’s workings is not capable of governing itself.
In approving South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act in 1978, the General Assembly stated: “It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy.”’
But there are real-life problems:
• A meeting of a council is held without giving notice to the public that elected its members.
• A request for information about taxpayer-financed salaries of public officials in a school district is rejected, with officials telling the media and a group of citizens they’ll have to go to court to get such information.
• An incident report about an auto accident involving a police vehicle is not made available until reporters get wind of the incident and make a formal request. It takes weeks for the report to be made public.
• A public body votes to enter closed session, citing only “personnel matters” as the reason. Officials emerge two hours later to announce “agreement” on a course of action.
• A school board discusses a document that is before the trustees meeting in public session. Reporters and all in attendance are refused a copy of the document.
Hypothetical examples? Only in that names, places, agencies, media and citizens are not included. Ignoring or giving short shrift to the principles of open government is not infrequent — in The T&D Region, around the state and throughout our country.
In South Carolina, we have a better-than-average Freedom of Information Act, a law designed to ensure that government operates in the open. Lawmakers made key improvements a year ago:
• Criminal penalties for FOIA violations, which have never been imposed, were removed. Violators are now subject to awards for damages and attorney fees.
• The waiting period for response to a request for access to public records is reduced from 15 days to 10. If the records at issue are older than two years, an agency has 20 days to respond to an FOIA request. Before the change, no time limit existed for when documents had to be provided.
• Agencies are required to post fees for searching and copying documents. That fee schedule replaces the “reasonable cost” provision that has come to mean anything from an agency billing a person thousands of dollars for research to amounts far above market rates for making copies of documents. The bill requires agencies’ fees not to exceed the prorated hourly salary of the lowest-paid agency employee. Copying fees would have to be at the commercial rate and cannot be charged if documents are transmitted by electronic means.
• If a public record exists digitally, a person has the right to request and receive it via electronic transmission.
Not to be lost during Sunshine Week and every week is the importance of the changes to all South Carolinians. The FOIA is not a law for journalists only. It provides government access for every citizen, including the many having never sought a public record or attended a public meeting. If and when their time comes, the strengthened law will be there to better serve them.