by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Late in 1982, David Burnham, New York Times journalist, sounded a warning to the press and America that deserved far much more than a two column head.

Burnham charged “In its first 21 months in office, the Reagan administration has taken several actions that reduce the information available to the public about the operation of the Government, the economy, the environment, and public health.

“The actions have included increasing the authority of Govern­ment officials to classify data, cutting back on the collection of statistics, eliminating hundreds of Government publications and reducing the staff of the National Archives.”

Administration officials deny the charges, Larry Speakes, deputy White House press secretary said there is no central directive to cut back on the availability of information.

Jonathon Rose, an Assistant Attorney General involved in the Administration’s effort to reduce the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, also said there was no united effort and added:

“I believe, however, that there is an effort to balance the value of collecting and disseminating information against other values we think are important. Freedom of information is not cost free, it is not an absolute good.”

Columbia Journalism Review editors noted recently in a commentary that presidents traditionally have regarded the FOI act with discomfit since it was enacted but that President Reagan “has tried everything from amputation to lobotomy,”

The editors said “For two years the Reagan administration has tried to weaken the federal Freedom of Information Act. It has tried frontal assault — a rewrite sponsored by the Justice Department and submitted, unsuccessfully, to Congress, It has tried flank attack — an executive order designed to keep more records secret and thus out of reach of the act. And it has tried covert action -­- quietly making it harder to obtain the waiver of fees that the act specifies for information ‘considered as primarily benefiting the general public’.”

The question about the value or “good” of freedom of information, raised by Rose above, was answered in part in an article which appeared in Organizing Notes last year.

It noted how journalists, scholars, consumer advocates, environmentalists, labor unions, civil rights activists, and count­less other citizens regularly use the Freedom of Information act.  It suggested that disclosures under the FOIA have benefited the lives of nearly all Americans and cited just six of more than 500 case studies it has compiled on successful use of FOIA to benefit the general public:

“A series of requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) revealed the extent of the FBI’s Counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) to harass and disrupt civil rights and anti-war organizations;

“Information released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documented the presence of defects in Firestone 500 tires and ultimately led to the recall of the unsafe tires;

“Documents obtained from the Food and Drug Administration revealed that more than 600 prescriptions drugs have been proven ineffective. As a result, Congress banned Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement for purchase of the drugs;

“Records released by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) revealed the Nixon administration’s attempts to use IRS tax audits to harass political opponents;

Files obtained from the Small Business Administration revealed that more than $60 million in government insured surety bonds had been granted to firms owned by a Chicago organized crime figure, resulting in a grand jury investigation into the firms’ activities;

“Records released by the Food and Drug Administration revealed an increased cancer risk among pregnant women using the hormone DES. As a result of the disclosure, the Surgeon General advised physicians to monitor DES patients for signs of cancer.”

Nonetheless, the Reagan administration seems determined to restrict the flow of information to the public. As this synopsis was being prepared, we note that the Justice Department has labeled three Canadian films (which happen to deal with acid rain and nuclear war) as propaganda and subject to government review; and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced it will have to issue subpoenas to obtain documents withheld by the White House and Federal agencies and noted that its work has been impeded by this action.

However, the most dangerous and overt challenge to the public’s right to know may have occurred on Friday, March 11, of this year, when President Reagan issued an executive order to “stem the flow of leaks of classified government information.”

As Anthony Lewis, of the New York Times, noted, this is “the most dangerous executive order in many years: dangerous to the American system of democratic control over public policy. It is also, so far, dangerously misunderstood.”

“When the White House issued the order — on Friday afternoon, to minimize public notice — some of the press focused on a colorful but relatively unimportant provision. It tells government employees that they must agree to take lie detector tests when leaks are being investigated, or face ‘adverse consequences’.

“The main point of the Reagan order is far more sweeping, more revolutionary. It extends to hundreds of thousands of men and women throughout government a system of prior censorship used until now only by the CIA and other super-secret intelligence services.

“Anyone who has seen sensitive information will be covered by the censorship system even after he leaves government service -­for the rest of his life. He will have to get official approval before writing or saying anything about subjects he dealt with in government … have to submit everything, however innocuous, and let government censors decide what can be said or published. And experience has shown that the censors spend most of their time trying to suppress embarrassing facts, not true secrets.”

Ironically, this Executive Order was issued in 1983. This year also happens to mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of The People’s Right to Know, the landmark work in the freedom of information movement, by Harold L. Cross.

If the press does not start to provide strong, continuous, and understandable coverage of Reagan’s attacks on the public’s right to know, we may not be enjoying that right much longer.


Organizing Notes, May 1982, “Government Secrecy,” by Maureen Weaver; New York Times, 11/14/82, “Government Restricting Flow of Information to the Public,” by David Burnham; San Francisco Chronicle, 3/10/83, “Curb on ‘Acid Rain’ Films Challenged;” 3/21/83, “U.S. Rights Panel Plans Subpoenas;” Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1983, “Keeping Government Honest;” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, 3/18/83, “The White House Attack on Public Information,” by Anthony Lewis, New York Times Service.