State lawmakers on the fence over whether to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) should take a look at the results of a recent experiment by the South Carolina Policy Council.
What they see should raise their hackles.
The council, an independent research organization that promotes limited government, free enterprise and individual rights in South Carolina, found that it isn’t unusual for government agencies simply to refuse to comply with the law.
The findings indicate that the law is not strong enough, that some agencies hold it in disdain, and that breaking it rarely bears consequences.
Lawmakers, whose job is to make laws that will benefit the state, surely understand that those laws — including the FOIA — aren’t much help if they are ignored. Those who really want to serve the state should feel compelled to set this straight.
The council’s experiment involved making FOIA requests for information over the last three years from 11 state agencies. They asked for the number of FOIA requests the agency received, the number to which they responded, the names of those who submitted the requests, how much they charged to provide the information and how much was collected. The requests were made on Nov. 8 and the results were published on March 10.
Apparently the educational institutions haven’t learned to respect the FOIA: Clemson responded on Nov. 30 with a pro forma notice that it would supply information required by law, but has provided nothing.
The University of South Carolina never responded, the Policy Council says.
The Medical University of South Carolina responded the next day. It agreed to send the information, after giving the council an estimated cost for providing the data. So far, however, no information has been produced.
The Department of Education responded immediately, saying that it retained FOIA records for only one year. But it did not provide that year’s information.
The State Ports Authority and the South Carolina Research Authority both responded quickly and thoroughly. The Department of Commerce provided the information, but declined 52 of the 122 FOIA requests it received.
But the Senate, in what the council rightly calls an “extraordinary claim,” insisted that the council’s request was an “unreasonable invasion of the personal privacy of those making requests.”
The House of Representatives provided the data but noted that five requests were declined because a House member claimed the information was exempt from the law.
And the Department of Transportation produced the number of requests it had received (1,512) and the charges it assigned ($32,299), but refused to supply the names of those submitting FOIA requests.
Over the years legislators have failed to approve initiatives to make it easier and less expensive for the public to have access to public information. This session, some stalwart elected officials are trying again.
Let’s hope that lawmakers won’t tolerate scofflaws, and that they’ll get on board with efforts to strengthen the FOIA and enforce it.