Sunshine Week 5: Bravery – Pooping, or Being Pooped On, Where You Sleep

One unfortunate aspect of open-records laws is that they tend to be unpopular – not just with those who could and should make use of them, but with the august masses who control the records throughout the country which are subject to disclosure laws. Many people can tell stories of making FOIA requests to federal agencies, only to get letters – or phone calls – asking what they want the records for. A number of requests I’ve made to the military have resulted in my being “examined”, if only through the magic of Google searches. It’s even creepier in England, where I was told, in response to one request for something completely innocuous, that I could have the document I’d requested, but first I had to tell Her Majesty’s Government why I wanted it.

Now, it’s not a big deal, unless you’re particularly paranoid – or work in government – to be scrutinized by some federal agency’s overzealous – and overreaching – FOIA boffin. In my day-to-day life, I couldn’t really care less if some people in the USAF, for example, are irritated by me. I don’t really mind that folks at Strategic Command are politely interested in what I want from them, and why I want it. My many and varied FOIA requests to the FBI have likely disqualified me from employment there, which is no huge loss…

It’s a bit different at the local level, however. There are some people who view folks who request their own FBI files as “brave”, believing in the widely-held myth that asking if “they” have a file on you is suspicious, and will cause a file to be opened on you. Bah, that’s not brave – brave folks are those who request, under open-records laws, documents and files from their local government. Especially if you live in a small town, you really, really don’t want to become known as a “troublemaker”; your local government has many subtle ways of expressing their displeasure at those who rock the boat.

An acquaintance of mine tells an interesting story that’s relevant here. He is an urban explorer, and fairly public about that fact, having appeared on television and in the newspaper a few times in connection with the hobby. A couple of years ago, his residence was broken into, and some small items of inconsequential value taken. The police officer who took the report recognized the urban explorer – ostensibly from television, but you never know, right? – and did little but make disparaging remarks about the “irony” the officer saw in the situation. “You break into buildings for fun, right? Well, don’t much like it when it happens to you, do you?”

Admittedly, this isn’t the 1920s, when many police chiefs – and their departments – were “on the take” from gangsters, and weren’t – or so it’s said – above having inconvenient people “disappeared”. In the U.S. today, that sort of thing generally doesn’t happen so much (though you hear stories…). Still, it’s never wise to irritate your local government; don’t poop where you sleep, as they say. If you’re looking for heroism and bravery this Sunshine Week, have a gander at folks who uncover their local government’s dirty little secrets – especially those who do so freelance, without the thin, tinfoil shield of “freedom of the press” to protect themselves…

Published in: General | on March 20th, 2008| Comments Off on Sunshine Week 5: Bravery – Pooping, or Being Pooped On, Where You Sleep

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