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Push for openness at all levels

There’s a lot of headline hubbub these days about public information.

We talk of “releasing” information like unleashing a caged, wild thing. The facts being a Kraken that could be used to destroy your enemies — but also crush everything else in an uncontrollable frenzy.

Public information release sparks great debate about the public’s right to know.

What about high-security information? What about privacy? What if the information is misused or misconstrued?

Right now Michiganders are having these conversations on several levels.

Nationally, there’s the report submitted to Attorney General William Barr by Robert Mueller that sets out the chargeable offense-free results of a two-year investigation into the relationship between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. The report hasn’t been released to the public, though the push for transparency falls across intentions and politics.

Statewide, we consider House’s legislation which would (finally) subject the Legislature and Governor’s office to open records laws — with some pretty big exemptions.

Exemptions include:

Keeping private constituent communication, even if names and addresses are redacted.

Keeping private communication between legislators.

Keeping private appointments, decisions to suspend or fire a public official or grant a pardon or commutation to a prisoner, budget recommendations, messages or recommendations to the Legislature and information on the governor’s residences.

Michigan’s Supreme Court this week will also hear a FOIA lawsuit against former Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is accused of using private email accounts for public business, then not releasing the emails.

Among the arguments “Barring” your right to this information are privacy and security, and the underlying assumption that the information can be used for ill intent.

There’s also the idea that people will speak less, or less openly, if they know their comments could be public.

Information indeed is a powerful, strong thing. It’s a fraught thing. It’s hard to get right. It can break, pulverize. But a cornerstone of our country — and our newspaper business — is that the American people can and should be trusted with it anyway.

You deserve to be reminded of your right to know, and that every aspect of government — from paperclip to backhoe — is bought with your money.

Why would the state get exemptions not granted to our local officials? Local governments are subject to all aspects of FOIA and cannot pick and choose which ones they want to follow. Why would the stakes be different at the state level?

This is not to say that all concerns are unwarranted — we hear them a lot in the newsroom and respect them. It requires a great leap of faith to trust another person with your words and your name. So many things could go wrong. Human navigate these heavy waters with empathy and judgment.

Because information can also elevate, illuminate and inspire us to see things as they are, and bring out our best selves.

These conversations are a start but by no means a finish. Let’s keep talking.

The Issue:

The public’s right to information is in the news lately.

Our View:

We push for openness at all levels.

— Traverse City Record-Eagle

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