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South Carolina without the FOIA

Posted: March 9, 2017 1:15 p.m.
Updated: March 10, 2017 1:00 a.m.

(Sunday is the beginning of Sunshine Week, a national celebration through March 18 of access to public information.)

South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted in 1978. It replaced an earlier FOIA from 1972, which was signed by Kershaw County’s own Gov. John C. West.

According to the S.C. Press Association’s (SCPA) A Citizen’s Guide to South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, it “makes records and meetings of public bodies open and available to citizens and their representatives in the press. This openness is important because it allows the public to learn about the performance of public officials and the expenditures of public funds.”

So, let’s make one thing clear about the 1978 S.C. FOIA: It was not crafted exclusively for South Carolina journalists like me. It was drafted, passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. James B. Edwards for you.

I hope that disabuses anyone of thinking that “freedom of information” is only for the elite or only for journalists or only for trouble-makers. Whoever you are reading this, whatever your political persuasion, the S.C. FOIA is yours.

But what if the S.C. FOIA didn’t exist? What if it had never been drafted, passed or signed?

I want to make it clear, the scenario I’m about to present is what could have happened. Perhaps it wouldn’t have. Perhaps our leaders since 1978 would have done things right even if the law didn’t say they should. I doubt it, though.

There would be no “presumption that all public body records and meetings are open and available to the public,” as the Guide points out.

So, imagine...

Most, if not all meetings of elected and appointed bodies, from city councils to the General Assembly, are held behind closed doors. The public only knows about laws once they are passed and published. Oh, and those votes are taken behind closed doors, too. Citizens essentially elect their leaders on faith with no way to ensure that they are truly doing the people’s work.

Elected and other officials rig things to favor their families, businesses and friends, with little or no repercussions.

No one outside of government -- and perhaps few inside -- have any idea how tax dollars are being spent. They’re not even sure how much tax money exists.

Citizens, much less the press, have no ability to ask to see or copy any books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings or other records, including electronic ones. And, even if a public servant agrees to provide materials, they charge exorbitant fees, making it almost impossible for any but the rich to obtain them.

For that matter, if a government document is released, it’s redacted so heavily as to be meaningless.

Law enforcement agencies never provide reports of their activities, making it almost impossible to know what happened -- even if it is from their point of view -- when they’ve arrested or, worse, have had to shoot someone.

That’s just a sample.

Sounds like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, doesn’t it?

It certainly does to me, because without the freedom of information, government officials can create “truth” without having to prove its worth.

Now, I’m going to flip something around from earlier in this column. I said the FOIA is for you, and it is.

However, the FOIA is certainly an outgrowth of the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of the press.

We journalists are “your representatives in the press” as the SCPA’s Guide puts it. While we are employed by various news agencies -- in my case, the Chronicle-Independent -- we work for you, the public.

While you’re at work, with your families, or on vacations, we go to city council and school board meetings. We dive into what are sometimes thousands of pages or terabytes of data so we can make sure you know what’s going on in government.

Free speech, a free press and freedom of information are all part of what makes the United States of America unique in the world. Other countries may have copied us in various ways, but none have so strongly protected your right to speak, your right to know and your right to get the information you need to make informed decisions, whether that’s on your own or through your favorite newspapers, TV or radio stations, or online sources.

We’ve enshrined two of those rights in the U.S. and S.C. constitutions and the third one into both federal and state laws. That’s how important they are to protect.

They’re not just important to us in the press, they should be important to you, too.

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