HARRISBURG, Pa. (February 17) – The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition on Tuesday issued the following statement by its executive director, Corinna Wilson:
Who knew that the golden age of transparency in Pennsylvania would last only six years?
The much-strengthened Right-to-Know law went into effect on January 1, 2009.
With the decision in the PSEA v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, DCED and the Office of Open Records, the Commonwealth Court eviscerates the presumption of openness that is the hallmark of the Right-to-Know law.
Today’s decision by the Commonwealth Court in the PSEA case, coupled with the threat posed by Governor Wolf’s attempt to strip the independence from the Office of Open Records by firing its executive director, spells the end of a Renaissance in Pennsylvania and the start of what can only be seen as a Dark Age of access.
The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition echoes Judge Dan Pellegrini’s plaintive question at the end of his dissenting opinion. Records have been released for years without harm. Why now – just as access to information has become exponentially easier – have we become so afraid?
What evidence does PSEA or the Commonwealth Court have that danger lurks behind the release of every public record in Pennsylvania?
The Pennsylvania Freedom on Information Coalition strenuously disagrees with the majority’s opinion in the PSEA decision today on both legal and practical grounds.
As Judge Pelligrini, the Court’s sole dissenter, ably points out, no rights can be taken away when public records are released because the Right-to-Know law did not create any new rights. The law presumed the obvious: Public records belong to the public. For that reason, the rules of due process – giving noticed to those named in public records and allowing time for them to reply – do not and should not apply.
Here’s a so-called “parade of horribles” to think about: under the precedent created by this ruling, property tax records, which show who is paying fair taxes and who is not, would be secret, unless owners give permission for them to be public. Land development plans, building permits, special zoning requests – all would be secret, unless those involved want the information to be public. Government contracts and purchases would be secret, unless the parties permit their financial arrangements to be public.
The court has used a groundless fear to justify blanket secrecy in government. Most teachers, most government workers and most members of the public have no cause for fear of harm from information concerning them in public records. Such information has been maintained by government for more than 200 years without any cause for alarm.
For the relatively small numbers of individuals who legitimately have cause to fear publication of their home address or other information – undercover police officers, domestic abuse victims — there are effective mechanisms in place to protect them.
The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition (PaFOIC) is part of a national network of more than 50 similar organizations that work to promote government transparency. Its goal is to preserve and improve access to all aspects of government, to achieve judicial recognition of a presumption of access in the law, to fund and implement grassroots and educational access efforts, to educate government officials in the need for access and to participate in efforts to improve and enforce legislation to ensure the fullest possible access to government. You can follow @PaFOIC on Twitter, or like it on Facebook at http://facebook.com/PaFOIC. For more information, visit http://pafoic.org.