Editor’s Note: Survey questions and results available at www.washingtoncog.org

PULLMAN, Wash. — Despite fears of identity theft and the proliferation of personal information on the Internet, Washington residents say they still strongly support public access to government records, according to a survey conducted at Washington State University.

The public opinion poll showed that more than nine out of 10 adult Washingtonians favor open government but three-quarters are concerned about misuse of information by the press and identity thieves. Nearly all are unaware of their legal rights to information.

The poll was conducted by WSU graduate student David Cuillier to mark the 30th anniversary of the state Public Disclosure Act adopted in 1972. It was sponsored in part by the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a non-partisan nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the people’s right to know in matters of public interest.

“While citizens understandably have concerns about the protection of personal information, I still believe that they expect, demand and deserve open, accessible and responsive government,” said State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who serves on the board of Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Out of 402 randomly polled adults, 98 percent said government proceedings should be open to the public, and 87 percent agreed strongly.

In addition, most people support their own personal access to specific government records, such as crime reports (83 percent) and property tax records (93 percent). And while they express nervousness about personal information being included in public records, 80 percent said they want access to home addresses of people in order to find long-lost relatives or friends.

However, fear of that very information about themselves appears to lower support for open government. The study showed that the more concerned someone is about identity theft and invasion of privacy, the less that person will support access to government records by the media.

Identity theft has become one of the fastest growing reported crimes since the Federal Trade Commission started compiling and publicizing its database of identity theft crimes in 1997. According to the FTC, the most common complaints are of thieves opening credit card accounts in someone else’s name, often based on information stolen from purses or business’ trash bins.

The fear of information proliferation and identity theft has prompted some government agencies to respond by closing public records.

“Clearly, citizens throughout the state want to know what is going on in their communities and in their government, but they are also afraid information will be misused by thieves or the media,” said Dr. Susan Dente Ross, associate professor of journalism in the WSU Edward R. Murrow School of Communication. Currently she is directing a Murrow school initiative to inform and facilitate citizen access to government information

Intelligent dialogue, Ross said, not knee-jerk reactions in times of fear, is needed to protect individual privacy but also the public’s ability to hold government accountable. Ross said education can help.

In general, people are unaware of their rights to government information. About 40 percent of the public said they did not know of any law in the state that provides citizen access to government information. Of those who said there is such a law, only 5 percent could name it – the state Public Records Act or Public Disclosure Act – that was approved by popular vote in 1972 through Initiative 276.

Furthermore, a third of the population could not name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment and only 10 percent named freedom of the press as a First Amendment right. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and protects the right to petition the government for correction of grievances. Only 4 percent of those surveyed could name all four First Amendment guarantees.

The survey showed that people who studied the First Amendment in school were more likely to support open government and attend school board or city council meetings.

“This study and others show that education can help,“ Ross said. “People who study the First Amendment are more likely to support open government and access to information, are more likely to support a robust free press and are more likely to participate in government as adults.”

Some of those education efforts are under way by the Washington Coalition for Open Government. The group sponsored a public workshop Jan. 30 in Arlington about government records. More workshops are planned throughout the state.

“The study is a timely and troubling picture for those who believe that access to government and openness in government is a keystone for democracy,” said Kristopher Passey, president of the coalition. “The media, state and local government and our schools all have a catch-up role to play in better education about our fundamental values. The study also highlights the need for intelligent dialogue on how to protect privacy while at the same time preserving the public’s basic right to know what government is doing.”

Cuillier, a graduate student in WSU’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communication, conducted the telephone survey of 402 randomly selected adults from November through December 2002. The margin of sampling error for the results is plus or minus 5 percent. Cuillier also advises WSU’s student newspaper, The Daily Evergreen, and the Chinook yearbook.

RESOURCES

David Cuillier, graduate student, Washington State University
Cuillier, who coordinated and conducted the survey, is a graduate student at Washington State University and has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in Kennewick, Everett and Vancouver, Wash. He currently advises The Daily Evergreen and Chinook yearbook. He can be reached at 509-335-2374 or at davidc@wsu.edu.

Washington Coalition for Open Government, www.washingtoncog.org
This nonprofit, nonpartisan organization was created in 2002 to promote and defend people’s right to know in matters of the public’s interest. It is a broad-based group representing the government, media, business community, citizens and other interested people. A copy of the survey questions and results can be found at the WCOG web site.

Kristopher Passey, president, Washington Coalition for Open Government
Passey, publisher of the Marysville and Arlington newspapers, is president of the WCOG board, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization formed in 2002 to promote the public’s right to know about its government. Passey can be reached at 360-659-1300, or at passey@att.net.

Brian Sonntag, Washington state auditor
Sonntag is responsible for auditing government agencies within Washington state for their adherence to the Open Meetings Act, and he is a member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached at 360-902-0370 or at sonntag@sao.wa.gov.

Dr. Susan Dente Ross, journalism professor, Washington State University
Dr. Ross, a professor of journalism at Washington State University, is an expert in media law and media framing. She is out of the country conducting research but may be reached by email at suross@wsu.edu.

Federal Trade Commission, Identity Theft web page, www.consumer.gov/idtheft/
Identity theft tops the FTC’s consumer complaint list for the third year in a row (see press release issued Jan. 23, 2003, at www.ftc.gov/opa/2003/01/top10.htm).