We should all be concerned that the Supreme Court Monday struck a blow against the public’s access to government information.
In this case, it was about how much money goes annually to every store nationwide that participates in the government’s $65 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called SNAP (formerly food stamps).
The Sioux Falls Argus Leader asked the government for the information under the Freedom of Information Act. The justices sided with a supermarket trade association and the U.S. government, which argued against the information’s release.
Why seek this information in the first place?
Eight years ago, Argus Leader reporters were probing issues of potential food stamp fraud while also examining rural communities’ access to affordable and nutritious food. They requested the annual amounts the federal government paid to retailers that participate in SNAP from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.
The USDA told them no.
So the Argus Leader sued for the information and the case found its way through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and back to federal district court in South Dakota, where a judge ruled that the information should be released. The government did not appeal the federal court’s ruling but then, the Food Marketing Institute intervened and appealed again to the Eighth Circuit. The appeals court ruled against the group in 2018, prompting its request for the Supreme Court to hear the case.
The food marketing group claimed that the data asked for was not public due to exemptions in the law for trade secrets and confidentiality.
It’s sad to think that the government collects billions of dollars in taxes, but when its citizenry asks how the money is spent, we are told it’s none of our business.
We’ve said it time and again, but it is worth repeating: Access to government records is needed for effectively monitoring government activities.
When that access is denied it is an afront to the First Amendment, along with our most basic right — freedom of speech and of the press.
This isn’t just about the media, it’s about all of us and our right to know the conduct of our government officials.
That is why the Black Hills Pioneer has and will continue to emphasize reporting on all phases of local government — city, county, school board — not to mention state and federal government.
We are your watchdogs and will continue to fill that role.
Thomas Jefferson once said that he’d rather have newspapers without a country than a country without newspapers.
And more recently, free press advocate Trevor Timm said an independent press ensures that citizens stay informed about the actions of their government, creating a forum for debate and the open exchange of ideas.
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