The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, pronounced “foy-ah”) is one of the most important weapons in the reporter’s arsenal. Essentially, and with lots of exceptions and exclusions, it requires the government to supply documents on request. Journalism schools offer courses on how to file a FOIA request. Many exposés of official misbehavior would be impossible without FOIA. It’s almost like a subpoena power for journalists. It’s also a tremendous burden on government agencies—and some of its biggest users are not journalists but companies trolling for commercial information about their rivals.
California’s state version of FOIA is called the Public Records Act. Last fall, for reasons too boring to go into, an aide to State Attorney General (and once and possibly future governor) Jerry Brown covertly taped and transcribed a conversation with a reporter. (Taping phone conversations without the consent of everyone on the call is supposed to be illegal in California.) Several California papers requested this transcript as well as those of any other covertly taped phone conversations between journalists and the state attorney general’s office. The results included four interviews with Brown himself. Brown always “gives good quote,” as they say, and the dean of the Sacramento press corps, George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, got a nice juicy column out of the transcripts. Nevertheless, he admitted,
it still makes me cringe. The public records act seems to be running amok when a reporter’s private interview with a public figure can be handed over to competitors … I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that a reporter’s interview with a government official is not public business. It’s not like awarding contracts, appointing cronies or appeasing contributors.
Actually, it’s very much like all those things. An interview is a commercial transaction in which the reporter and the source each hope to gain something. Such exchanges rarely amount to anything illicit, but most FOIA requests, on all subjects, are dry holes. And many FOIA requests offend people’s sense of privacy or give succor to their enemies, rivals, or competitors. Now, Skelton knows how it feels, and he’s honest enough to say that he doesn’t like it (though in this case he benefited from it). But he never felt the law had “run amok” until it intruded (at least potentially) on his own commercial privacy.
For people whose job it is to describe the world, journalists often seem to have remarkable difficulty imagining life in other people’s shoes. Take the recent Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Reversing an earlier decision, the Court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right of free speech, and cannot be forbidden to spend their own money expressing political views. Essentially, the decision gutted the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reforms of 2002. “Independent expenditures” by individual citizens have been protected by the First Amendment since the Court’s Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976. But until the Citizens United case, a ban or limit on such expenditures by corporations was thought to be legal. Moderate, responsible opinion makers, including most of the nation’s leading editorial pages and probably most of its professional journalists, deplored the rulings in Buckley and Citizens United on the grounds that “money isn’t speech.” Even President Obama spoke out against Citizens. Buckley was bad enough, freeing rich egomaniacs to spend their own money without limit in favor of some cause or candidate or their own quixotic campaigns for office. Citizens United now raises the specter of corporations flooding politics with money in pursuit of a corporate agenda of reckless deregulation, disregard for the environment, and, as always, lower taxes on capital.
These risks are real. Unfortunately, we are stuck with these few unhappy consequences of the First Amendment, just as we are stuck with the many unhappy consequences of the Second Amendment. And we should take the Constitution seriously—especially the parts we don’t like. Money is speech. The Supreme Court has always allowed limits on contributions to political campaigns, reasoning in part that the purpose of a contribution is not fundamentally to send a message. But the purpose of an independent expenditure of your own money to promote a candidate or cause is to send a message. And it’s axiomatic that the government can’t limit a message based on its content. It can limit the use of loudspeakers in the park after 10 p.m. so that neighbors can sleep, but it can’t limit the use of loudspeakers by Republicans because it doesn’t like what they have to say, and it can’t limit the use of loudspeakers by pols in order to prevent the messages of people with bigger loudspeakers from enjoying an unfair advantage.