Celebrating the Freedom to Know

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by Steve Zalusky

James Madison once wrote that 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."

Madison, who is recognized as the “Father of the Constitution” and a staunch advocate of open government, is honored each year on his birthday, March 16, which is celebrated as National Freedom of Information Day.

It is fair to say that Madison would appreciate the institution of the library. In fact, his estate at Montpelier is notable for its library. At the estate, in the winter and spring of 1786, he devoted a great deal of his time to poring over more than 400 books in an effort to gain knowledge about ancient republics and confederacies. This knowledge bore fruit in the U.S. Constitution.

By the time of his death in 1836, Madison’s library had grown to more 4,000 volumes and was one of the largest libraries in the nation.  Over the years, libraries have been advocates for the freedom of the press and the freedom to read, inalienable rights guaranteed in the United States Constitution.

The Freedom to Read Statement, originally adopted by the ALA (American Library Association) Council in 1953, states, “We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture. We believe that these pressures toward conformity present the danger of limiting the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our democracy and our culture depend. We believe that every American community must jealously guard the freedom to publish and to circulate, in order to preserve its own freedom to read. We believe that publishers and librarians have a profound responsibility to give validity to that freedom to read by making it possible for the readers to choose freely from a variety of offerings.

“The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution. Those with faith in free people will stand firm on these constitutional guarantees of essential rights and will exercise the responsibilities that accompany these rights.”

The heritage shared between Madison and the libraries that carry on his legacy is commemorated each year, as the American Library Association, on Freedom of Information Day, recognizes those individuals or groups that have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know with the presentation of the James Madison Award.

This year’s recipient is Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT). Tester’s work on behalf of open government included his introduction in 2011 of the bipartisan Faster Freedom of Information Act that would set up an investigation of delays and recent rejections of Freedom of Information Act requests.  The investigation would be conducted by an independent commission appointed by members of both parties, and would be followed by recommendations to improve disclosures and reduce delays.

“Open government and accountability are Montana values that I’m proud to bring to the U.S. Senate,” Tester said at the time.  “Shining more sunlight on how the government operates will give Montanans and all Americans the tools to hold their leaders accountable.  That can’t happen when folks have to wait months or even years to get the information they need, which is why I’m fighting for real transparency.”

He was also the author of the Public Online Information Act, which would require virtually all public documents to be posted online in a free, searchable clearinghouse.  In January, after the Trump Administration began directing various federal agencies to stop issuing press releases, publicly posting documents, or posting on social media, Tester issued the following statement:  "Freedom of the press and access to our government agencies are critically important if we're going to demand excellence from them. We need an open government, not a closed government as President Trump has proposed. Transparency is fundamental to our democracy."

ALA Past President Sari Feldman will present the award in a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, March 15. The event will be streamed live from the Knight TV Studio in the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC, and can be viewed by visiting http://www.newseum.org/live/.