Panel debates information freedom in U.S.

Ashley Yeaman

A group of distinguished panelists gathered today at the Shelia and Walter Umphrey Law Center and discussed access to information by both the media and general public and transparency within the government.

The panel discussion “Can Freedom of Information Survive U.S. Democracy (and Politics)?” featured moderator Tony Pederson, the Belo Distinguished Chair of Journalism at Southern Methodist University and a 1973 Baylor journalism graduate; Judge Ken Starr, Baylor President and the Louise L. Morrison chair of constitutional law at the Shelia and Walter Umphrey Law Center; Kenneth Bunting, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition; Charles L. Overby, chairman and CEO of Newseum, Freedom Forum and Diversity Institute; and Thomas J. Williams, a partner at the Haynes and Boone Law Firm.

Pederson stressed the importance of access to information in a modern democratic society, saying that “the free flow of information is essential to democracy.”

Overby said the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and press, is a unique right compared to other countries.

“The first amendment really sets the U.S. apart,” Overby said. “We have a big debt to our founding fathers.”

Despite acts to protect freedom of speech and create available access to information, Bunting said that transparency within the government has become an issue his foundation seeks to control, but increasing transparency could be difficult.

“I want to make sure every citizen asserts their right to government access,” Bunting said. “But what I really wish I could change is the mindset of government officials.”

Bunting said that the government has the tendency to act in secrecy.

Questions of what should and should not be available to public access have also been increasingly scrutinized, Starr said.

“Wikileaks is a phenomenon that merits our reflection and discussion. The question is – is it journalism?” Starr said.

Starr said that he takes the position of Wikileaks opponents in that Wikileaks deviates from journalism because they do not seek to minimize harm and consequences in their work.

Pederson agreed, saying that what Julian Assange did “is not journalism at all.”

Taking a step back from federal questions of transparency and free access, Williams discussed issues of privacy, and the difficulties with the Freedom of Information Act as it applies to modern technologies, such as in the case of city council information sent over a smart phone by former Dallas mayor Laura Miller.

“It is a gray area,” Williams said. “It is a difficult area for many public officials.”

This idea of public versus private is one that Overby predicts may come into conflict with the first amendment.

“I think [the first amendment] will be chipped away piece by piece, maybe with the best intentions but with the worst results,” Overby said. “The biggest threat we know today is privacy. Privacy could be used as a political rally for people who want to amend the first amendment.”