"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Let B.C. info be more completely free

The B.C. government has struck a special committee to review the province's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The public has been invited to submit its input into the review, and so I've taken advantage of the invitation and have just submitted my thoughts, which I've reproduced below. If you are also interested in the subject, the deadline for submission is the end of this week--January. 29, 2016. Click here to access the committee's webpage, which has all the information on how to submit.

My submission:

Summary: To adhere to both the spirit of the freedom-of-information movement and the stated intent of the B.C. FOI legislation, Section 22.1 of the Act should eliminated.

Detailed submission: Triple-deleting of emails, lengthy delays in responding to requests, redacted information dealing with finances and a general reluctance to share information: these are the sorts of provincial-government actions and attitudes that have sparked the most public concern during the current statutory review of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
All such concerns seem to be legitimate and need to be addressed. But there’s at least one more outstanding issue that, if left unrectified, can only lead the public to conclude that the provincial commitment to freedom of information is an illusion. I will detail this in a moment.
First, though, a reflection on the importance of freedom of information (FOI). We in the democratic West take it as a given that FOI is an absolute “good,” both in principle (as an integral part of a free society) and in practice (as a necessary way for the public and politicians to obtain the information to make good decisions).
Indeed, this belief is now widespread among advanced nations. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, for example, has declared, “The free flow of information and ideas lies at the heart of the very notion of democracy and is crucial to effective respect for human rights.”
But, of course, this understanding has not always been widespread. And, alas, it is not a value to which many current governments subscribe.
The enactment of B.C.’s FOI law was a long-awaited and much-celebrated fulfillment of the aspirations of those who believe transparency in government, as manifested by a citizen’s right to have free access to government records (as long as such records do not trample on the privacy rights of other citizens), is integral to a more-democratic government.
Such a noble sentiment arose in the West at a time of great intellectual growth. Consider these words: “The freedom of a nation cannot be upheld by laws alone, but also by the light of the nation and knowledge of their use.” They were written in 1763 by Anders Chydenius, an Enlightenment thinker and politician whose work helped inspire the first freedom of information law, in Sweden and Finland in 1766.( www.freedominfo.org.)
Two hundred years later, John F. Kennedy observed, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.”
Yet, British Columbia’s FOI law has, since 2001, contained a censorious and anti-democratic provision that seems to embody President Kennedy’s dark vision of a nation afraid of its people. I refer to Section 22.1, “Disclosure of information relating to abortion services.”
Under this section, the law makes it illegal for “The head of a public body…to disclose to an applicant information that relates to the provision of abortion services.” The effect of this provision is to make it illegal for authorities to disclose information about the number and type of abortions being performed in the province, even though these abortions are funded by the public and often take place in public facilities.
One might appreciate the value of this section if and only if it prevented the release of personal information that would best be left private. But this is not the case. Indeed, no one is suggesting that personal information would be ever divulged.
Rather, the section was made law simply to stifle the free flow of information about a legal, taxpayer-funded procedure which was and remains the subject of legal, medical and moral controversy in the community.
This is certainly contrary to the purpose of B.C.’s FOI act, which is “to make public bodies more accountable to the public” and to give “the public a right of access to records” while also protecting privacy.
The censoring of such information has the deleterious effect of limiting informed public discussion on such important, specific subjects as sex-selection abortions (usually of females), late-term abortions, and abortions based on the results of medical or genetic tests.
Further, any informed discussion and debate on the larger and more general subject of the provision of abortion services is also strangled by the censoring of this information.
Therefore, I would urge the committee to recommend the lifting of the abortion-information ban; this is a simple matter that can and should be enacted by amending the legislation to eliminate Section 22.1.

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