UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"Susceptible of a very broad interpretation" : notions of accountability and free-flow-of-information in American views on the Freedom of Information Act, 1929-1989 McAndrew, Ian


In 1989, the United States Supreme Court formulated the central purposes doctrine of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by ruling that the law was designed to grant citizens a right of access to records reflecting on the activities of government officials. This decision immediately generated controversy. The majority of parties interested in FOIA jurisprudence claimed that the judgement misconstrued the congressional intent by denying that legislators had hoped to create a right of access to all government-held information, regardless of its content. The contrast between the Court's doctrine and the majority interpretation, or the free-flow-of-information view, is the main topic of this thesis. In exploring this matter, it becomes evident that the intellectual history of access legislation in the United States is marked by considerable diversity: from the 1920s through to the present era, various FOIA constituencies have espoused distinctive views on how an access-torecords statute should be understood. Most of these interpretations have focussed on the need for access as a measure to help citizens oversee the conduct of government personnel, and only the free-flow supporters have broken from this pattern. The philosophy they offer in its place suggests that oversight interpretations, particularly the central purposes doctrine, are illegitimate. These orthodox commentators argue instead that because the FOIA was designed to serve the same goals as the First Amendment, it must be read as mandating disclosure as "an end for its own sake." The principal contention here is that free-flow supporters have dismissed the government-oversight views far too quickly. To illustrate this point, the thesis focuses on the central purposes doctrine, and articulates it in the form of an "accountability view" to establish that the Court's decision was not as arbitrary as is often claimed. Second, the argument inquires whether one of these two predominant views can be said to have a stronger rationale than the other. The ultimate conclusion of this line of inquiry is that, because of serious logical flaws in the first-amendment argument supporting the free-flow theory, the central purposes doctrine actually represents the more reasonable interpretation of the statutory purpose of the act.

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