Assaults on Freedom of Information From the Left and Right
by Al Diamon
It’s good to know that the population of clunkheads in Maine is evenly distributed across the political spectrum. We can thank a liberal organization and a conservative group for providing strong evidence of that this past week.
On March 26, Maine’s Majority, a coalition opposed to the agenda of Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his allies, put out a press release criticizing former GOP state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin. It seems MM had discovered that back in December, just before returning to private life, Poliquin used the state’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) to request a copy of the e-mail list used by his office. As the release noted, this is perfectly legal. What the group didn’t like is that Poliquin, rumored to be running for something or other next year, began sending out e-mails promoting his political views to the more than 10,000 names on the list. As the release put it, he “subsequently used this public information for his own personal gain.”
How did Maine’s Majority find out about Poliquin’s FOAA request? According to the release, it filed a FOAA request of its own.
Jeff Inglis, editor of the Portland Phoenix, thought there was a certain irony in criticizing someone for using the right-to-know law by using the right-to-know law. Inglis engaged in an extended e-mail debate with MM executive director Chris Korzen over that point and its possible unintended consequences. He posted the entire exchange on his blog.
“It’s a VERY slippery and dangerous slope to try to start dictating what can and can’t be done with public records after they’re released to the public,” Inglis wrote. “Please don’t weaken Maine’s existing open-government laws further by pursuing this.”
Korzen was unrepentant. And less than clever.
“Jeff, Jeff, Jeff,” he wrote, “I really don’t care. This is my job.”
After Inglis pointed out that open government laws “exist so that people can ask questions of their government and get answers, and then publicize those answers, for whatever purpose the requester has,” Korzen came back with this remarkable response:
“I would love to see the law changed so we can prosecute people who do what Poliquin did. He gives open government a bad name.”
Inglis pointed out that this would essentially give state government the power to decide whether any FOAA request was for an acceptable purpose — acceptable to state government, of course. Korzen insisted there should be some legal restraints on how such information is used. When Inglis asked what sort of restraints, Korzen said he’d “let the Legislature write the laws.” In other words, those with the most to lose from a right-to-know request would set the limits on what could be requested.
Korzen and Maine’s Majority are hardly alone in their disdain for forcing government to reveal information it would rather keep secret. The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center’s Maine Wire news service unleashed its own attack on March 28. It claimed that newspaper reporters had threatened to “Stalk, Expose State Employees” if they didn’t promptly respond to FOAA requests.
The story by S.E. Robinson is downright silly. The threats in question came from Michael Doyle, a Falmouth gadfly with a long history of filing right-to-know petitions. Doyle publishes his own newsletter, mostly for the purpose of espousing his disdain for town government. That makes him a journalist if he says he is. But to compare his heckling to the first-rate reporting done by MaineToday Media staff writer Kelley Bouchard on the sorry state of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ child welfare programs — as the Maine Wire does — is either stupid or as politically biased as Maine’s Majority. Maybe both.
There’s no evidence of stalking or threatening in the e-mails Bouchard sent to the department asking for information (were they obtained through a FOAA request by Robinson?). She merely points out that if the bureaucrats don’t respond in a reasonable amount of time and at a reasonable price, she’ll be forced to mention their obstructionism in her story, which she did. That’s called standard journalistic practice.
The Maine Wire piece comes off as a gratuitous swipe at MaineToday, motivated by ideology rather than facts.
The state’s open government laws are too important to be used as mere pawns in the political machinations of advocacy groups. These sorts of attacks provide no useful information, but do give opponents of sunshine statutes — mainly politicians and bureaucrats with something to hide — ammunition to help protect their secrets. Maine’s Majority and the Maine Wire should be ashamed of themselves for engaging in such efforts.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.