Today’s commemoration should be thought of in the same light as Independence Day. As a matter of fact, the Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966. So why is March 16th celebrated as Freedom of Information Day? It’s because today is President James Madison’s birthday.
Madison is the “Father of the Constitution” and was an outspoken advocate in favor of openness in government. Not only did Madison contribute to the drafting of the Constitution, he was an author of the Bill of Rights. Madison strongly believed that individual rights and freedom of information are essential to the health of a nation. Eventually, Madison was elected as the United States’ fourth President. His administration held true to freedom of information principles.
While freedom of information was an informal policy of the Executive Branch, the call for a formal law didn’t happen until the 1950s–a time of paranoia and increased federal secrecy. Democratic Representative John Moss began advocating for more openness after President Dwight Eisenhower purged thousands of federal employees on the accusation that they were communists. Moss requested access to the dismissal records but Eisenhower refused to submit them.
Once Congressman Moss became the chairman of the Congressional Subcommittee on Government Information in 1955, Moss conducted investigations into instances of agencies witholding information. He also chaired hearings about government transparency. Finally, after over a decade of persistant work, Moss had rounded up enough congressional support to pass the Freedom of Information Act in 1966.
President Lyndon Johnson was less than enthusiastic about the bill, because he thought it would limit the effectiveness of certain government officials to communicate and function. However, he did sign the bill into law on July 4, 1966. The Freedom of Information Law went into effect exactly one year later.
It is important to note that the FOIA only applies to the Executive Branch, not the Legislative Branch, nor President, the Vice-President, their immediate staffs, nor the federal courts. Although many experts have advocated for expansion of the FOIA, this probably will not happen soon, if ever.
Meantime, Americans should more widely celebrate FOIA Day and James Madison’s birthday. To do so, is to promote a healthier political culture.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes author and journalist George Orwell. “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”