December 11, 2023

Teaching the public about the rule of law, responsibility, and repercussions is a crucial part of any trial. If all cases were tried in secret, without the public hearing what was said or seeing how the prosecution proceeded, there would be no way for legal precedents to be established, no way for future lawyers to learn, and no way for the law to progress.

Every weary law school student knows the value of reviewing old trial records, jail history and recalling past verdict precedents. Nevertheless, these instances of education and precedent wouldn’t exist if trials weren’t recorded and made public. Since the general people would be in the dark, it would be unable to bring the judicial system to account.

Journalists wouldn’t be able to learn about the case or get explanations from the judge either. To sum up, there is no means of enabling citizens to challenge or learn from the judicial system without some mechanism to disseminate information between courts and the public.

And what about the right to a public trial, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment? A few hastily written phrases on a piece of paper.

The Freedom of Information Act

After noticing an unprecedented rise in state surveillance, California Democrat John Moss sponsored the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1955. According to Moss, the citizens of the United States had a responsibility to be constantly apprised of the activities of the government and its various agencies. The public could use this knowledge to restrain government abuse of power.

Lyndon B. Johnson, eleven years later, signed the Freedom of Information Act into law. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was amended to make it a more powerful investigative tool in 1974, following the infamous Watergate crisis. Recent modifications have expanded the scope of the Act to include:

  • Statutes of responsibility. Under President Gerald Ford’s administration, the Senate and the House of Representatives enacted several new requirements and timeframes for the distribution of public records in 1976, including the imposition of penalties for improperly withholding information and the waiving of distribution and filing fees for journalists and public interest groups.
  • Obtaining information quickly with computers. An amendment signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 required government entities to make publicly available documents in digital formats upon request. This change was crucial since it facilitated the quick and easy sharing of records.
  • Access for civilian reporters to records. Bloggers and other “alternative” journalists have been granted access to public documents since President George W. Bush signed an amendment in 2007 designating them as journalists.

State FOIA Regulations

The Freedom of Information Act not only makes certain federal records publicly available, but also allows individual states to enact their laws regarding public access to government records.

Records provided in a trial include written records like court transcripts, digital files like video transcripts or audio recordings like depositions, and other documents. Unless an exception is found in the legislation, all public records are assumed to be open to the public.