Public Benefits from Open Public Records

Open access to public records serves many valuable purposes, ranging from providing the public with the information it needs to select and oversee the government to providing the critical infrastructure of our information economy.

The economic benefits of open public records?such as being able to identify and verify the qualifications of consumers and businesses, facilitate rapid and accurate credit decisions, and expand the range and convenience of payment mechanisms and the number of Americans who qualify for them?impact consumers every day. (They are the subject of another Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access paper, Consumer Benefits From Open Public Records.)

But there are other critical public and social benefits that flow from open public records that are often overlooked. These uses of public records in our democracy are so common, and their value so great, that we frequently take them for granted. Consider just a few of the essential benefits that open public records provide:

Information for Self-Government

Access to public records is central to electing and monitoring public officials, critiquing government operations, understanding the operation of the law, ensuring confidence in government, evaluating the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of government bodies, and protecting against secret or illicit government activities.

As James Madison wrote almost two centuries ago: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”1

It is for this reason that federal law, and the laws of the states and the District of Columbia, provide for disclosure of all information held by the government, except where such disclosure would offend a specific, enumerated interest. And when lawmakers have sought to restrict access to public information, the Supreme Court has responded by identifying both a common law1 and a constitutional2 right of access.

Public record information is especially important for guaranteeing the integrity of the political process. As the nation has so recently witnessed in the case of Florida, a state with an unparalleled tradition of open public records, access to voter records, ballots, judicial proceedings, and other public records are critical to public oversight of, and confidence in, the electoral process and the resolution of electoral disputes. Similarly, federal law provides that Federal Election Commission filings about contributors to federal campaigns shall be public.

Information to Protect Public Health, Safety, and Property

Law enforcement relies on public record information to prevent, detect, and solve crimes.

In 1998 the FBI alone made more than 53,000 inquiries to commercial on-line databases to obtain a wide variety of “public source information.” According to Director Louis Freeh, “Information from these inquiries assisted in the arrests of 393 fugitives wanted by the FBI, the identification of more than $37 million in seizable assets, the locating of 1,966 individuals wanted by law enforcement, and the locating of 3,209 witnesses wanted for questioning.”3

Information to Inform the Public

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