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History behind the Freedom of Information Act

On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Freedom of Information Act into law. According to Bill Moyers, Johnson’s press secretary, “LBJ had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of open government, hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets, hated them challenging the official view of reality.”

Unfortunately, in 2022, many elected officials feel the same way about open government as Lyndon Johnson did. Understanding the history behind the Freedom of Information Act is important as is continuing the fight for open government today.

In 1952, John Moss was elected to represent the Sacramento area of California in Congress. While serving in Congress Moss asked for agency records and was denied. News reporters complained to Moss that they likewise had difficulty obtaining information from government officials. In 1954, Moss introduced legislation to make government records available to the public. For ten years as chair of the subcommittee on Government Information, Moss held hearings, and issued reports about government secrecy and advocated for such information to be available to the public.

The Government Information Subcommittee noted many instances of federal agencies refusing to release information, such as: the National Science Foundation stating it would not be in the “public interest” to disclose competing cost estimates submitted by bidders for the award of a multi-million dollar project; the Navy ruled that telephone directories fell within the category of information relating to “internal management” and could not be released; Many federal agencies refused to release minutes showing the votes taken on contract awards.

Due to the efforts of Congressmen Moss, all of the above items and more are now made available to the public. Every single federal agency that testified at hearings for the Freedom of Information Act opposed it. Attempts were made to deny funding and to abolish Moss’s Committee. It took twelve long years pushing Congress to pass it and three presidents to sign it, but on July 4, 1966, the Freedom of Information Act became law. On the 56th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, we owe a debt of gratitude to John Moss for his many years of fighting for the public’s right to know what their government officials are doing.

New York state has its own Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), which all too often government officials are slow to respond to or refuse to comply with. There are no consequences for government officials that do not comply with the law and there is no entity that the public can turn to that has the power to enforce compliance with the law.

New York’s open government laws are in need of reform and we need an elected official like John Moss with the tenacity to make it happen.

(Paul Wolf, Esq. serves as president of the New York Coalition For Open Government.)