Secrecy News

Origins of “The Right to Know”

“There is nothing in the Constitution about ‘the public’s right to know’,” wrote former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence Mark M. Lowenthal in his book “Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy” (CQ Press, 2000, page 143).

“The Constitution safeguards freedom of speech and of the press, but these are not the same as a right to information,” Mr. Lowenthal argued.

This is not quite correct. The Constitution may be readily understood to grant a public right to know certain types of information.

Specifically, the Constitution imposes an obligation on the government to publish two categories of information: a Journal of Congress (Article I, section 5) and a statement and account of all receipts and expenditures (Article I, section 9).

And the government’s obligation to publish this information is semantically identical (or nearly so) to a public right to know it.

The public only gained a broader legal right to access government information with the Freedom of Information Act, which was first enacted in 1966. Prior to that time, one could ask for information, but the government had no duty to respond. Since then, thanks to the FOIA, the public has had a legally enforceable right to compel disclosure of non-exempted information.

As for the phrase “the right to know,” it was apparently coined in the 1940s by Kent Cooper, who was the executive director of the Associated Press. The New York Times credited him with originating the phrase in an editorial on January 23, 1945. (As noted by James S. Pope in the Foreword to “The People’s Right to Know” by Harold L. Cross, Columbia University Press, 1953, p. xi.)

0 thoughts on “Origins of “The Right to Know”

  1. To me it is inherent in a representative democratic system that a person has the right to know what the government is doing.

    Otherwise, how can one make any decision, particularly intelligent decisions, about for whom to vote.

  2. I very much appreciate the plug for my book (now in its 3rd edition) re my comments on the Constitution and the public’s right to know. Your comments notwithstanding, my statement remains correct as written. There is no blanket Constitutional “right to know.” I am not a lawyer but I am hard pressed to see how the Constitutional requirement to publish certain types of information, such as the budget, then translates into a blanket right.

    FOIA obviously creates a requirement to publish information. It also grants limits and restrictions on that requirement for classified information. Again, I do not see how this translates into a blanket right and we obviously cannot have a circumstance in which a law supersedes the Constitution. Moreover, not every law is based on “rights.” Some are administrative in nature, which is how I would characterize FOIA.

    Mark Lowenthal

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