Survey: Public Supports More Government Openness

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Post-9/11 anxiety about terrorism hasn’t diminished the public’s strong support for freedom of information issues — or its deep concern about government secrecy, a survey released Sunday found.

In the poll commissioned for the kick-off of Sunshine Week, March 13-19, seven in 10 Americans said they were concerned about government secrecy. Some 35% of respondents said they were “very concerned” about the secrecy, and another 35% said they were “somewhat concerned.”

The survey, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Ipsos-Public Affairs, repeated some questions that were asked in a 2000 survey commissioned by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

On government secrecy, the numbers in both polls are virtually identical. In 2000, before the 9/11 terror attacks, 38% of respondents said they were “very concerned,” and 34% were “somewhat concerned.”

More than half — 52% — of respondents in the new poll said there is “too little” access to government records, compared to 36% who said access now is “just about right” and just 6% who said there is “too much” access. In the 2000 survey, 48% said there was “too little” access; 30% “just about right”; and 7% “too much.”

There’s growing public sentiment that access to government records is, in the words of the survey, “crucial to the functioning of good government.” In the new survey, 68% agreed with that statement, compared with 60% in 2000.

“We were surprised to see that there was little change in public thinking on secrecy after the attacks of 9/11,” Andy Alexander, chairman of ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee and Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, said in a statement

“With the ongoing war and continuing concerns about terrorism, you might think that people would be more tolerant of government’s tightening control of information, but these results suggest that’s not the case. The survey indicates people are not only concerned about secrecy but also recognize the importance of access to information about their government,” he added.

If Americans want more access to government documents, that doesn’t necessarily include court documents, the survey suggests. Widespread reports of identity theft may account for the public’s diminishing enthusiasm for increasing access to court records. Half of respondents said the amount of access to court records is “just about right” while only a third, 33%, said there is “too little.” Just 9% responded that there is “too much” access to court records. By contrast, in 2000, the sentiments were almost exactly reversed: Not quite half of those surveyed, 45%, said there was “too little” access to court records while 32% said it was “just right.” Only 7% thought there was “too much” access.

The survey is part of the first national Sunshine Week campaign by newspapers, broadcasters, and free-press groups like ASNE to increase public awareness of FOI issues with news stories, opinion pieces, editorial cartoons, and other programs.

The survey suggests the Sunshine Week campaign is timely. Nearly four in 10 Americans, 39%, said they had heard nothing in the news lately about “freedom of information” or “sunshine laws.”

“These numbers show us that although people are concerned about access to government information, they may not be as aware of the specific laws that protect that right,” Alexander said.

Ipsos-Public Affairs surveyed 1,003 adults from March 4-6. The non-partisan researcher, which includes The Associated Press among its clients, said the margin of error for the poll is plus-or-minus 3.1% for all adults.

Of those surveyed, 30% had actually requested records from a government agency, up from 20% in 2000. And while the FOI “audits” that newspapers and the AP have run in many states often reveal that bureaucrats give records-seekers a hard time, the new survey found that 65% of those who had requested a government document had a good experience, while just 20% reported a bad experience.

More information about Sunshine Week — which is being led by ASNE and funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — is online at www.sunshineweek.org.

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