February 9, 1999
The Honorable Thomas Bliley
Chairman House Committee on Commerce
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Chairman Bliley,
As organizations committed to preserving the public's right to know, access to government information, and the free flow of information, we are writing to express our concern and opposition to proposals to limit public access to information concerning accidents at chemical plants (EPA's unclassified Worst Case Scenarios data). It is our understanding that you are considering the creation of a new exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), or amending the Clean Air Act to exempt this information from the provisions of FOIA, and have discouraged the EPA from using the Internet to provide public access to this publicly available data.
FOIA was designed to allow the public to inquire about and monitor government activities. Since its passage, individuals, journalists, academics, community leaders have used FOIA to research, study, and utilize public information created or collected by the government. FOIA gave government the affirmative responsibility to make information widely available to the public.
Three years ago, Senator Patrick Leahy's amendments to FOIA, EFOIA, expanded the rights of individuals, assuring public access to information in all media, and encouraged the use of the Internet for the dissemination of government information. EFOIA ensured that the public's interest in access to information would benefit from advances in technology and that information could not be withheld simply because it was in electronic form.
The Clean Air Act, like FOIA, seeks to empower citizens by providing information critical for communities to assess the safety of companies operating in their midst by planning and comparing information about their communities in order to make informed decisions about their lives. The dissemination of information is critical to the success of the Clean Air Act, giving individuals the ability to monitor the toxins in their community.
The Internet and other digital media have given individuals an unprecedented ability to access information and utilize their right to know with ease and efficiency. Congress recognized, in passing EFOIA, that technology has great power to "foster democracy by ensuring public access to agency information." The amendments expanded the information actually - not just legally - available by making frequently requested records more readily available "through computer telecommunications." Exempting specific information from the FOIA, or any effort to set medium-based limits on the release of government information to the public, has an impact on the public's right to access information.
We urge you not to put forward such proposals or, at the very least, to help ensure that there is a full hearing with input from all of the affected communities including public interest groups, journalists and other frequent FOIA requesters.
American Association of Law Libraries
American Civil Liberties Union
Association of Newspaper Editors
Center for Democracy and Technology
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Chairman Steve Horn, House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology
Representative Robert Goodlatte, Internet Caucus Co-Chair
Representative Rick Boucher, Internet Caucus Co-Chair
Senator Conrad Burns, Internet Caucus Co-Chair
Senator Patrick Leahy, Internet Caucus Co-Chair