Access to Government Information In the United States Page: 2 of 4
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bureaucracy generally was not eager to have its activities and operations disclosed to the
public, the press, or other governmental entities. Prevailing law tolerated this state of
affairs, offering citizens no clear avenue of access to agency information. The public
availability of records held by the executive branch was limited by artful interpretation
of the housekeeping statute of 1789 authorizing the heads of departments to prescribe
regulations regarding the custody, use, and preservation of the records, papers, and
property of their entity. Moreover, a provision of the Administrative Procedure Act of
1946 indicated that matters of official record should be available to the public, but added
that an agency could restrict access to its documents "for good cause found" or "in the
public interest." These discretionary authorities were relied upon to restrict the
accessibility of unpublished agency records and documents.
Such conditions also contributed to the increasing difficulties of congressional
committees and subcommittees in gaining access to both records and officials of federal
departments and agencies during the 1950s. In response, some congressional panels
began examining these information access issues and seeking responsive legislative
Public Access Laws. Apart from interbranch information access dilemmas,
Congress, in 1966, undertook fashioning various statutory arrangements for realizing
public access to executive branch information. This focus resulted because legislators felt
that Congress adequately made its deliberations and proceedings subject to public
observation, largely published its records, and otherwise was constitutionally authorized
to engage in information restriction. For example, the Constitution explicitly permitted
each House of Congress a discretion to keep portions of its journal of proceedings secret
and disallowed the questioning of Members of Congress "in any other Place" regarding
official speech or debate. Legislators also were satisfied with the openness of federal
court files and hearing rooms. Thus, the departments and agencies were the principal
object of government information access reform laws. Executive branch officials,
however, were not supportive of these measures and, initially, did not always promote or
pursue their faithful administration. The current major federal laws facilitating public
access to government information are briefly described below; the full text of each statute
may be consulted by using the appropriate United States Code reference provided.
" Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552)
Initially enacted in 1966 and subsequently amended, the Freedom of Information
(FOI) Act establishes for any person-corporate or individual, regardless of
nationality-presumptive access to existing, unpublished agency records on any topic.
The law specifies nine categories of information that may be permissibly exempted from
the rule of disclosure. Agencies within the federal intelligence community are prohibited
from making any record available to a foreign government or a representative of same
pursuant to a FOI Act request. Disputes over the accessibility of requested records may
be settled, according to the provisions of the Act, in federal court. Fees for search,
review, or copying of materials may be imposed; also, for some types of requesters, fees
may be reduced or waived. The FOI Act was amended in 1996 to provide for public
access to information in an electronic form or format.
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Relyea, Harold C. Access to Government Information In the United States, report, January 23, 2003; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc820925/m1/2/: accessed December 18, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.