Editorials

On July 4th, 50 years ago, the Freedom of Information Act became law

Miami Herald Editorial Board

LBJ did not support passage of the Freedom of Information Act, which was championed by Rep. John E. Moss, D-California.
LBJ did not support passage of the Freedom of Information Act, which was championed by Rep. John E. Moss, D-California. AP

Fifty years ago, on July 4, 1966, a piece of legislation that guarantees that the government must share with its citizens “all information that the security of the Nation permits” was signed into law. It’s called the Freedom of Information Act and gives any citizen the right to request official governmental papers.

President Lyndon B. Johnson did not support the law and only agreed to approve the bill after the Justice Department suggested he read a signing statement that was meant to undercut the thrust of the law, but failed to do so. Here is President Johnson’s statement signed at his Texas ranch instead of at a celebratory event at the White House. Happy Independence Day to those who won the right to know.

The measure I sign today, provides guidelines for the public availability of the records of Federal departments and agencies.

This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the Nation permits.

No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.

At the same time, the welfare of the Nation or the rights of individuals may require that some documents not be made available.

As long as threats to peace exist, for example, there must be military secrets.

A citizen must be able in confidence to complain to his Government and to provide information, just as he is — and should be — free to confide in the press without fear of reprisal or of being required to reveal or discuss his sources.

Fairness to individuals also requires that information accumulated in personnel files be protected from disclosure.

Officials within Government must be able to communicate with one another fully and frankly without publicity.

They cannot operate effectively if required to disclose information prematurely or to make public investigative files and internal instructions that guide them in arriving at their decisions.

I know that the sponsors of this bill recognize these important interests and intend to provide for both the need of the public for access to information and the need of Government to protect certain categories of information.

Both are vital to the welfare of our people.

Moreover, this bill in no way impairs the President’s power under our Constitution to provide for confidentiality when the national interest so requires.

There are some who have expressed concern that the language of this bill will be construed in such a way as to impair Government operations.

I do not share this concern.

I have always believed that freedom of information is so vital that only the national security, not the desire of public officials or private citizens, should determine when it must be restricted.

I am hopeful that the needs I have mentioned can be served by a constructive approach to the wording and spirit and legislative history of this measure.

I am instructing every official in this administration to cooperate to this end and to make information available to the full extent consistent with individual privacy and with the national interest.

I signed this measure with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.

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