ATHENS, Ohio (March 15, 2006) -- Most Americans believe the federal government operates with "too much secrecy" these days.
People also say they are curious and want to know what their local, state and national governments are up to. They overwhelmingly believe that public access to official records is critical to good government.
First Amendment advocates hailed the findings of an Ohio University- Scripps Howard News Service survey of 1,007 adult residents of the United States conducted at the request of the American Society of Newspaper Editors as part of its observance of National Sunshine Week this week. The poll was conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.
"This is about the only good news I've had all week," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Va.,-based Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. "Clearly, people are starting to understand that information is being taken away from them."
The survey found that 58 percent of the people in the poll believe the national government has "too much secrecy." Forty-five percent were as critical of the level of secrecy in their state and local governments.
"People clearly think that their federal government is more secretive than state or local governments. And they are probably right," Dalglish said. "It has becoming more difficult to get information out of the federal government."
Andy Alexander, chairman of the newspaper editors' Freedom of Information Committee, said the survey confirms that people believe their national government is excessively secretive.
"We commissioned the survey so that we could show, scientifically, what we know anecdotally - citizens want the federal government to be more open and transparent," said Alexander, Washington bureau chief of Cox Newspapers.
The poll found widespread interest in governmental actions during a time of the international war against terrorism, intense political divisions within the U.S., and a widespread concern that the nation is not on the right track.
Thirty-eight percent said they are "very interested" in the "actions and activities" of state and local government while 52 percent expressed similar interest in the federal government.
"Americans are intensely interested in what goes on at all levels of government," Alexander said. "Public officials should take note of that. Citizens want to know more about their government, and they clearly do not want more secrecy."
ASNE is spearheading Sunshine Week in which a variety of news organizations and civic groups seek to raise public awareness of the importance of open government.
The survey asked: "Do you believe that public access to government records is critical to the functioning of good government or do you believe that it plays only a minor role?" Sixty-two percent said records access is critical, 25 percent said it has a minor role, and 13 percent were undecided or gave other responses.
Respondents in the poll were also asked to rate whether various governments are "open and transparent" or "closed and secretive." Only 10 percent thought state and local governments tend to be "very secretive" and 30 percent said these governments can be "somewhat secretive." Overall, 55 percent said they think these governments are open to public scrutiny.
But the federal government is regarded with greater suspicion. Only 33 percent said Uncle Sam is "very open" or "somewhat open," while 40 percent said it is "somewhat secretive" and 22 percent said it is "very secretive." In both questions, 5 percent were undecided.
There is almost no opposition to so-called "sunshine" or "freedom-of-information" laws that guarantee public access to government records, official meetings and court records. Only about one person in 20 complained that these laws provide "too much access."
The poll found that Americans are divided when asked to select the legal standard to determine when information should be released.
Forty-six percent agreed with the statement: "Government records should be considered public and information should be withheld only if a government agency can show that release of the information would do harm.
But 42 percent agreed with the statement: "It is the responsibility of the government to protect the information it holds and records should be made public only if the citizen can make a sound legal case for its release." Twelve percent were undecided.
People who depend upon newspapers rather than television or other sources to tell them about government activities tend to be more insistent that records be made public and to be more critical of government secrecy. Sixty-two percent of people who rely on newspapers said they believe the federal government is too secretive.
The poll also found that Americans rarely interact with their government and infrequently seek records. Thirty-seven percent have attended a meeting or hearing of their local government, but only 15 percent have attended a state hearing or meeting and only 8 percent have gone to a federal hearing or meeting. Twelve percent have sought records from City Hall or other local agencies, while 8 percent have asked for state records and 6 percent has sought federal records.
The survey was conducted nationwide by telephone from Feb. 19 to March 3 at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. It has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
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