Welcome Remarks for Sunshine Week
Greetings from my office in the National Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. A year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancelation of Sunshine Week events across the country including here at the National Archives, I recognize the difficult times we all have faced over the past 365 days as we have distanced ourselves from one another physically, juggled professional and personal obligations, and grappled with national and international unrest and uncertainty.
Sunshine Week is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information in mid-March that coincides with the birthday of the fourth President of the United States – James Madison. Tomorrow, March 16th, marks 270 years since his birth and it is particularly fitting that we at the National Archives celebrate Mr. Madison. Among the many treasures of America’s past in the holdings of the National Archives are two documents that Mr. Madison played a pivotal role in drafting and promoting: the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Mr. Madison was largely responsible for the proposals guaranteeing freedom of the press and ensuring jury trials – matters that are near and dear to today’s program guests as well as to our democracy.
In a letter Mr. Madison penned in 1825, he said: The “advancement and diffusion of Knowledge … is the only Guardian of true liberty.”
One-hundred and forty-one years later, in 1966, the thirty-fourth President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, echoed that sentiment in signing the Freedom of Information Act into law. In his bill signing statement, President Johnson noted quote “I have always believed that freedom of information is so vital that only the national security, not the desire of public officials or private citizens, should determine when it must be restricted”
Today, government transparency remains as important as ever both within and beyond the FOIA framework. Our National Archives staff works to make access happen not just during Sunshine Week––but each and every day–– even during a global pandemic. Despite teleworking full-time, staff members from the Office of Research Services are responding to reference requests, preparing and submitting digitized files and metadata for upload into the National Archives Catalog, among many other tasks.
Mission-essential staff members in our National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis have regularly reported to work throughout the pandemic to access paper records often needed to support veterans and their families with urgent matters such as medical emergencies, homeless veterans seeking shelter, and funeral services for deceased veterans. These exceptional National Archives staff pioneered alternate work processes incorporating physical distancing and other protective measures to ensure a safe work environment while providing this critical service.
As we work to cultivate access to important government records, the National Archives also continues to set the pace in the government-wide effort to modernize Federal agency record-keeping and transform to a fully electronic government.
Since the pandemic started one year ago, NARA’s Office of Government Information Services – the Federal FOIA Ombudsman – has responded to more than 4,000 inquiries from requesters and agencies seeking assistance with the FOIA process. OGIS also has published seven compliance assessments on topics as wide-ranging as agency communication with requesters during the pandemic and proactive posting of documents on agency FOIA websites.
OGIS connects with customers in many other ways, including through the FOIA Advisory Committee and in public events such as this one.
I am thrilled to welcome the Honorable Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court here in Washington, D.C. Judge Lamberth is a long-time friend of the National Archives and, in pre-pandemic times, frequently presided over naturalization ceremonies as immigrants have taken their oaths of U.S. citizenship in front of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, our nation’s cherished Charters of Freedom. Today, he is joined by his biographer and former law clerk Adam Pearlman to discuss open government and legal landscape.
Following that conversation, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont will join us in a recorded message. Senator Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, was elected to the Senate 1974, the same year that Congress amended FOIA in the wake of the Watergate scandal and several court decisions. In the four-plus decades since, he has led every congressional effort to reform FOIA, and is a true champion of the statute — and of government transparency overall.
Finally, we will close our celebration with a panel of open government experts continuing the discussion about the U.S. transparency landscape. I am pleased to welcome Michael Bekesha of Judicial Watch; Katie Townsend of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and Alexandra Perloff-Giles of Gibson Dunn and Crutcher’s Media, Entertainment and Technology Practice -- and a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee. Their discussion will be moderated by Kirsten Mitchell of OGIS.
Happy Sunshine Week! I hope you enjoy today’s program.