Supreme Court must retain robust freedom of information laws

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The Supreme Court will soon rule in a case that could give corporations effective veto power over which of their interactions with our government they get to hide from Americans. Justices must side with the press and the public, and against private interests that seek to shield their reputations and profits.

Every day, in pursuit of information on how our government operates, reporters (and ordinary citizens) file countless what are called freedom of information requests. Those submissions are the quiet gears turning in the grand machinery of our democracy.

Eight years ago, the Argus-Leader out in South Dakota sought details from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the revenue from federal food stamps spent at retail establishments. The Food Marketing Institute, which represents retailers, sued.

Their argument: That the data should stay secret because a clause in the 1966 federal law exempts “confidential” information from public disclosure.

Bull. For more than 40 years, courts have rightly defined that word narrowly, to shield only information that could substantially injure companies’ interests. The food industry now seeks to radically broaden the term to mean that anything companies already keep hidden gets to stay private.

If it wins that argument, look for companies, and the government, to get away with untold abuses. Tiny example: food stamp files exposed by reporters in other states showed how thousands of employees of major companies needed taxpayer help to buy groceries because their wages were too low.

When Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act, it sought to “pierce the veil of administrative secrecy” and “open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.” The Supreme Court must honor that noble intent.

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