Saturday, July 08, 2006

Tax dollars to fund study on restricting public data

The federal government will pay a Texas law school $1 million to do research aimed at rolling back the amount of sensitive data available to the press and public through freedom-of-information requests.

Beginning this month, St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio will analyze recent state laws that place previously available information, such as site plans of power plants, beyond the reach of public inquiries.

Jeffrey Addicott, a professor at the law school, said he will use that research to produce a national "model statute" that state legislatures and Congress could adopt to ensure that potentially dangerous information "stays out of the hands of the bad guys."

"There's the public's right to know, but how much?" said Addicott, a former legal adviser in the Army's Special Forces.

"There's a strong feeling that the law needs to balance that with the need to protect the well-being of the nation. ... There's too much stuff that's easy to get that shouldn't be," he said.

The federal Freedom of Information Act, which became law 40 years ago this week, has long been a source of tension between the government and the public and news media.

Critics say the research plan overstates the need for secrecy and is likely to give state and federal governments too much discretion to withhold material. "Restricting information (for) security and efficiency and comfort level, that's the good story," says Paul McMasters, a specialist in public information law at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "The bad story is that it can also be a great instrument of control. ... To automatically believe that the less known the better is really not rational."


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