Bed Bugs and the Pathology of Secrecy

An adult bed bug (Cimex lectularius) with the ...

An adult bed bug (Cimex lectularius) with the typical flattened oval shape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a textbook example of why sometimes secrecy seems like the right thing, when in fact it is precisely the wrong thing…

A bill that would shield certain bed bug data from public records law in an effort to encourage voluntary reporting passed in the House this morning.

House Bill 2131, which now heads to the Senate, passed on a 55-1 vote.

Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, said that bed bug infestations are a growing health concern in Oregon.

“Here’s the bill that you have been itching to vote on,” Kennemer told lawmakers on the House floor.

Under the bill, bed bug infestations reported by pest control operators to a public health authority would be kept confidential. The location of the infestation, identity of the property owner and information describing the infestation would be exempt from public records law.

Public health officials say that it would encourage voluntary reporting for data that is currently difficult to gather.

Pest control operators are not required to report bed bug infestations. If the information was released to the public, it could jeopardize the operator’s business with clients, supporters say.

“Collecting this new data allows public health (officials) to make data-driven decisions about prioritization of scarce resources for bed bug education, mitigation and assistance,” Kennemer said.

So, to translate: we have a public health concern. It could cause very real shame to those who have an infestation…so, if we keep this information from the public, it will incentivize those in arrears to clean up their act.

Nothing — absolutely nothing – supports that assumption. Logic defies it. And yet it emerges over and over in FOI issues: “hide it, and it will get better…” I am itching just thinking about it.

 

They won a Pulitzer, and now they help citizens with FOI requests…

Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Ang...

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A tiny nugget from the LA Times’ winning coverage of the Bell, California scandal

Jeff Gottlieb, one of the two reporters who exposed corruption in Bell, Calif., tells Al Tompkins that “one of our city desk assistants still answers those calls and helps people with their public records filings.” The Times created a public records section on its website that has a primer on disclosure laws and enables reporters and the public to share public documents…

Needless to say, this makes my heart glow.

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See, This is the Kind of Stuff I Was Worried About…

WOW, was there an outbreak of FOIA fear-mongering today, thanks to the academic FOI stuff in Wisconsin and Michigan. Folks are overreacting just a wee bit out here. Calm, people, calm…

My reading pile began with this piece on The Huffington Post, in which a fellow who probably knows a great deal about law wrote this:

In recent years, however, that sunshine has begun to produce severe risk of sunburn. Broadly written state and federal “open records” laws have converted an instrument for ensuring transparency into a handy weapon to discredit political opponents, intimidate critics, and simply harass private citizens for no better reason than that they are government employees.

Really? First of all, that makes it sounds like we just make requests and get records, simple as that…broadly written FOI laws? Really? Broadly written to allow governments to close things, sure, but the author is arguing here that they are veritable fishing nets. A bit later:

In Wisconsin, for example, any public employee — teacher, cop, janitor, or food server — can be the subject of an open records request. No reason is required for an open records request, no justification or evidence to support suspicion of wrongdoing.

Again, the mind reels. So…isn’t this precisely, exactly what FOI laws should do — allow us to access the records of any governmental employee who merits scrutiny? This “I am just a police officer..I am but a lowly city planner…” meme has been used for ages to try to make FOI some sort of only-the-execs province. Problem with that? Well, yes. The mayors and police chiefs and school superintendents are not stupid, so they’ll just house the records with “non-subject” personnel. Come on!

“No reason is required for an open records request, no justification or evidence to support suspicion of wrongdoing,” the author writes, indignantly.

Huh? Of course there is no reason required! What? So I walk in to a county clerk’s office and the following occurs:

ME: Hi, I was wondering if I might see some property tax records…

CLERK: Why?

ME: I am an interested citizen?

CLERK: No. I need a reason…

ME: Oh, OK. Well, I suspect that some powerful, well-connected elites in this town have property tax rates lower than mine.

CLERK: (Ignoring me, while dialing 911)….

It gets even better from here, folks, trust me. I’ve seen this many times before, typically from inside government offices: FOI Mania. The fervent, if delusional belief that openness surely shall spell doom if left to the diabolical requesters!

Then there was this one, entitled “The Freedom to Snoop,” by the otherwise rational Clarence Page, another victim of FOI Mania:

Why is the Mackinac Center interested in professors’ TV viewing habits? The center’s request doesn’t say. The right of the public to see public records is viewed as so fundamental under FOIA provisions that the filers don’t have to say why they want to see the files.

Well, Mr. Page, that’s because, um…well, it is so fundament

al that filers don’t have to say why they want to see the files. See the above discussion for more detail, including a docudrama between myself and fictitious clerk, but sheesh…

But wait, folks! There is more! The Washington Post devoted the collective brain power of its entire editorial board to this gem, “Using Open Records Law to Harass Scholars.”

This, people, is FOI Mania at its finest, a state-of-the-art discourse on the apocalyptic visions of openness run amock:

In a statement defending the action, the state party’s executive director, Mark Jefferson, decried the “concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government.” But Mr. Jefferson’s statement ignores the important difference between an ordinary public official and a professor who happens to be paid by the state. The better argument was made by the American Historical Association. It noted that historians “vigorously support” open-records laws but that the law was being misused “to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

So, again, if we like your FOI request, it’s a good one, and if it lacks a valid “reason,” we don’t? Is this really the standard the Washington Post wants to apply to FOI?

Not me. It’s a public record. I have a right to it. End of story.

If Professor Cronon, as everyone says, has done nothing beyond the purview of academic research and banter, guess what? There will be no FOI-driven documents worthy of use. If he was using his post at a taxpayer-funded institution to organize or electioneer, guess what? That’s newsworthy.

Already famously thin-skinned and disliked by huge swaths of the populace, must we academics now also demand privileges that no cop, or teacher, or fireman, can enjoy?

 

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The Academic FOI Story Just Grew Rather Exponentially…

Rachel Maddow in Seattle.

Image via Wikipedia

Talking Points Memo has the news on the latest in the email labor wars, as the issue really heats up the FOI landscape. I’ll say at the beginning what I have been saying on the phone to reporters all day: these are lawful FOI requests from public, taxpayer funded institution. I’m not about to take FOI and put it before some “motives” test…

I’m quite sure there are those who disagree forcefully, but this is a classic case of an immutable property: information is either disclosable under the law or it isn’t, and in this case, unless the e-mails meet statutory exemptions, they are public records. I’ve never once predicated access on the motives of a requester, nor will I….

Here are some of the most important parts of the story…

A free enterprise think tank in Michigan — backed by some of the biggest names in national conservative donor circles — has made a broad public records request to at least three in-state universities with departments that specialize in the study of labor relations, seeking all their emails regarding the union battle in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, TPM has learned.

According to professors subject to the request, filed under Michigan’s version of the Freedom Of Information Act, the request is extremely rare in academic circles. An employee at the think tank requesting the emails tells TPM they’re part of an investigation into what labor studies professors at state schools in Michigan are saying about the situation in Madison, Wisc., the epicenter of the clashes between unions and Republican-run state governments across the Midwest.The requests specifically seek emails from all labor studies faculty at each school.

The think tank is also known for FOIAing state workers, including teachers and professors. In February, it criticized Michigan State for not fully complying with a FOIA request for emails surrounding a plagiarism scandal involving MSU faculty. A recent request was for public school teacher emails that may or may not have mentioned the possibility of a strike. Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan. That FOIA request was denied, leading to outcry from the Mackinac Center and the Michigan Press Association.

Here is a copy of the FOI request.

 

 

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