Origins of “The Right to Know”

By March 7, 2006

“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.)

Categories: Secrecy