Wednesday, February 27, 2002

freedom of information

I remember the first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request I ever made. Looking up information on Delaware's DUI statute, I accidentally opened the Delaware Code to a random page in the section on Civil Defense.

And there it was - the Communist Registration Act of 1953. The title stopped me in my tracks. I was compelled to read the Act, before going on to discover whether Delaware's DUI statute would call for the automatic revocation of someone's driver's license for a specific period of time, or merely gave the Division of Motor Vehicles the right to take a license away for a time determined at their discretion.

Older versions of the Delaware Code are filled with treasures of legislative history, and often offer an glimpse into the minds of our legislators. For instance, pick up an old copy of the Code, and you might just come across the section which made it a crime to bring a camera with you to a public whipping. Up until 1967, it was legally possible in Delaware to sentence someone to be whipped as a punishment. (What types of crimes were eligible for such a sentence? One I came across was Wife Beating.) There's something just wrong about a state sanctioning a punishment when they would then make capturing the sentence on camera a crime.

The Communist Registration Act required any communist plotting to overthrow the government of Delaware, or of the United States of American, to register with the Office of Public Safety every year, within the first 15 days of the year. This was regardless of whether they were a card carrying member of the Communist Party, or just a communist intent on hiding their allegiance to the communist party, acting in sympathy with the Soviet Republic, while causing (or just planning) the downfall of democracy.

Since the Soviet Republic had been a defunct governmental body for at least a couple of years at that time, I thought that it might have been a good thing to let the law find its way out of the Delaware Code, and into the social studies textbook that it belonged within. The best thing to do might have been to write a letter to a state senator, calling it to his or her attention.

But curiosity got the better of me. Instead, I considered it interesting determining if the law had always been useless, and not just one that was now useless because it was obsolete. I wrote a letter to the Head of the Department of Public Safety requesting to find out if anyone had ever been prosecuted under the law. I didn't want names, just numbers. I mentioned my interest in writing an article about the subject. Never did write that article (until now).

About a week later, I received a response for the Delaware Attorney General's Office letting me know that they had deemed my request worthy of a response. Three weeks later, a letter was in my mailbox from the headquarters of State Police Intelligence. To the best of their knowledge, no one had ever registered under the statute. My guess was that no one had ever been prosecuted under it either from that response. I occasionally wondered from that point on, when within the eyesight of someone from the Attorney General's Office, whether they thought I was harboring secret thoughts about bringing the camaraderie of communism to America.

A few months after my letter, one of the editors from the Wilmington News Journal asked the same questions I had been asking myself about the Communist Registration Act. But he did it within the confines of the editorial page. The law didn't last on Delaware's books too much past his musings about its continued need.

Regardless of my experience with Delaware's Freedom of Information Act, I've always been happy that there was a way for people to ask about such things. And the last couple of years has shown the government providing information online that would have been unimaginable until recently. But, we really do have to be concerned about the types of information that should be disclosed.

Should a detailed map of New York City's power grid be online? What about a map of the reservoirs of the city, or floor plans of government buildings? These are the types of things that might have been released through a Freedom of Information Act request. These are things that were online recently, and have been taken away. The State of New York has been reviewing the information people have access to (registration required) and it's made them nervous. And they have every right to be.

I just hope that someday we can look at the policies being issued now about restricting access to information and find them as obsolete as I thought the Communist Registration Act was when I stumbled across it.