Source: New England Society of Newspaper Editors
Full poll results are available on the NEFAC/Northeastern website:
The vast majority of New Englanders believe that having open access to the workings of government is important to citizenship and most favor toughening the laws that protect access, according to a poll of attitudes toward the First Amendment. Moreover, nearly nine out of ten New Englanders believe government agencies that wrongly withhold public records should pay the legal bills necessary to open them.
The poll, commissioned by The New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC) and conducted by the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center, asked more than 600 New Englanders their attitudes toward the First Amendment and transparency in government. Among the findings:
One in four respondents strongly believe that public business in their community is done out of public view.
A majority in the six-state region believe the news media seeks out public information useful to citizens. But one in four people polled disagreed, 14 percent strongly.
Most citizens, have not asked for a public record in the last 12 months and, of those who did, 87 percent said they got what they asked for.
A plurality of respondents said they were familiar with the workings of their state's open records laws.
On the whole New Englanders are satisfied with the response of state and local government to citizen requests for access but they remain skeptical of government motives.
Regarding the First Amendment and the five freedoms it protects, poll respondents said they valued freedom of speech most highly (44 percent) followed by religion (15 percent) petition (7 percent), press (3 percent) and assembly (2 percent.)But 25 percent said they regarded all five as equally important. Asked which of the five they regarded as least important, 44 percent said that all were of equal importance. And the press was ranked second to speech, ahead of assembly, religion and petition.
Dr. Andrew Smith, director of UNH's Survey Center said the overarching significance of the poll lies in how highly citizens value openness in government and how skeptical they are that public officials share that value.He points to the high percentage of respondents who believe open records laws should be strengthened (63 percent agree, 40 percent of those strongly) and the high number who believe officials who withhold information should have to pay a citizen's legal bills to gain access.
Skepticism was widespread in the poll's findings. For example, 44 percent of the respondents either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that not "all public business" is done in public view. And 23 percent doubted that a public record would be surrenderedin a timely manner.
Only 27 per cent believed state government does an excellent job of keeping records up to date and open to the public. For Dorothy Bentley of Arlington, Vt., government secrecy was rampant in the Bush administration.
"I just don't like all that secrecy," she said. But she's relatively happy with the level of openness in her town, less so of neighboring towns. "They need some help on that front," she said. That skepticism was directed at the press as well. Smith called that a matter of some concern because the traditional press makes the bulk of records requests. "The average citizen deals with government of a routine basis," he said. "They really only think about access issues when it affects them directly or when a controversial issues arises."
That squares with the experience of Susan Layman of Woburn, Mass. She has had only two experiences with local government. One was to get a deed to a piece of property, the other to learn about a long forgotten and unused road."I could get the deed online with no problem," she said. The other effort failed. "We asked for the information and never got it." Layman favors open access to government's work, "But I just haven't had the need."
New England First Amendment Coalition president Tom Heslin, executive editor of the Providence Journal, was heartened and concerned by the results. "That so many New Englanders value openness is cause for celebration." he said. "However, most citizens are apparently unaware of the difficulties reporters encounter in obtaining information on the public's behalf."
Heslin said the results also carried an important message for the news media: "The public believes we should be more visible and vigilant in advancing their right to know through our news coverage. They know that we are on the front lines in the exercise of the five freedoms of the First Amendment."
One Massachusetts poll respondent expressed confidence - moderated by caution -- that the news media would do its job. "I believe they do," said. "I'm sure they don't always, but I have hope that they do."
NEFAC works in partnership with Northeastern University's First Amendment Center to further the cause of government transparency and the inter-relationship between the First Amendment and open government. Results of the poll will be used to help shape discussions in a number of town hall-style meetings scheduled to take place in 2010.