Reprinted from Truthdig
A protester holds a placard during a march in New York.
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Next year, the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) will celebrate its 50th anniversary as one of the finest laws our Congress has ever passed. It is a vital investigative tool for exposing government and corporate wrongdoing.
The FOIA was championed by Congressman John E. Moss (D-CA), who strove to "guarantee the right of every citizen to know the facts of his Government." Moss, with whom I worked closely as an outside citizen advocate, said that "without the fullest possible access to Government information, it is impossible to gain the knowledge necessary to discharge the responsibilities of citizenship."
All 50 states have adopted FOIA statutes.
As the FOIA approaches its 50th year, it faces a disturbing backlash from scientists tied to the agrichemical company Monsanto and its allies. Here are some examples.
On March 9th, three former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science -- all with ties to Monsanto or the biotech industry -- wrote in the pages of the Guardian to criticize the use of the state FOIA laws to investigate taxpayer-funded scientists who vocally defend Monsanto, the agrichemical industry, their pesticides, and genetically engineered food. They called the FOIAs an "organized attack on science."
The super-secretive Monsanto has stated, regarding the FOIAs, that "agenda-driven groups often take individual documents or quotes out of context in an attempt to distort the facts, advance their agenda, and stop legitimate research."
Advocates with the venerable Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) do worry that the FOIA can be abused to harass scientists for ideological reasons. This is true; for example, human-caused global warming deniers have abused the FOIA against climate scientists working at state universities like Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University.
Among other suggestions, UCS recommends the following:
"Universities should clarify their policies and procedures with regard to open records requests, ensure that their employees understand these policies, and make sure they have considered how they will respond when overly broad requests are used to harass their researchers. ...
"Legislators should examine their open records laws and ensure that they include appropriate exemptions that will protect privacy and academic freedom without compromising accountability.
"The National Academy of Sciences and other research organizations should provide guidance to legislators and universities on what should be disclosed and what should be protected. ..."
For more on the UCS positions see: ["Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers."]
The proper response to abuses of the FOIA is not, however, to advocate blocking citizens or reporters from using the FOIA.
There are countless government and corporate scandals that have been revealed by the FOIA, but here are just two from this year.
In February, Justin Gillis and John Schwartz of the New York Times used documents obtained by the Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center through the FOIA to expose the corporate ties of the climate-change-denying scientist Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, who received over $1.2 million in contributions from the fossil fuel industry over the last 10 years. Soon even called his scientific papers "deliverables" to his corporate donors.
Another area of risk to food and health was revealed by FOIA requests. There are legitimate concerns about the health and environmental perils of genetically engineered crops and food. And the concerns are mounting. For example, in March, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified the herbicide glyphosate -- which is sprayed as Roundup on many genetically engineered crops -- as "probably carcinogenic to humans."
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