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Marquette University expert explains the Freedom of Information Act and why it matters

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Transparency is essential to our democracy — and according to our laws the public is entitled to it. Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA as it is commonly referred to, has served as a way for the public to request information from a public office, a military body or a local police force.

But, FOIA requests aren’t always answered — sometimes due to a lack of resources and sometimes due to restrictions on the information. A.Jay Wagner is a professor at Marquette University and is an expert in the history and use of FOIA. He explained that FOIA initially was meant to make government transparency a more concrete tool for the American public.

“Prior to the 60s and 70s we didn't have guaranteed access to any government information. It was effectively a handshake or gentlemen’s agreement that the government would work with reporters and individuals but they didn’t have to do anything,” says Wagner.

Actually having sued a police department in Custer County Oklahoma, Wagner says two things that define how FOIA requests are avoided are hostility and indifference.

“A lot of places were just like what do you know? Why would you want this? I don’t have to give this to you, and then you do the song and dance and usually they give it to you. In Oklahoma though I actually sued them,” says Wagner.

Wagner, a former investigative reporter, has had numerous experiences with FOIA and through these experiences he has cultivated a particular interest in tracking which government bodies respond and in what ways to a request.

“That’s really where my research goes is understanding why we get these different responses. Are there particular preconditions that lead to these kind of outcomes? And a lot of times it was sheriff's [departments], but it was all kinds of different departments as well,” says Wagner.

Wagner also explained that perhaps those body’s that ostensibly have the most to lose by being transparent are the ones who push back the hardest on FOIA requests.

“Transparency makes it harder to govern and an uninformed mass is easier to control — and that’s just the simple fact of the matter,” says Wagner. “But that is why we need to protect something like FOIA because in that way it is so essential.”

Whether it be a lack of resources or a bureaucratic loophole that allows a body to avoid fulfilling a request, Wagner says that the conversation around FOIA at the moment is one of discontent. Further, he says because of its ineffectiveness, FOIA is not fulfilling its intended role for the public.

As for what should be done about this, Wagner says a reexamination of the law and true commitment to transparency could be a possible solution.

“I think if we all stood up and said we want transparency, like anything else in our democracy, politicians would probably take notice,” says Wagner, “But it we have to make that decision to engage with our democracy in that way and demand transparency.”

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