The right of citizens to have access to government records is an important safeguard of liberty in the United States. The right to know is an essential element of a democratic society, which depends on the participation of its citizens. While this right is implied by the guarantee of freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it is not specifically protected by the Constitution. Instead, the legal basis for freedom of information comes from acts of Congress and rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the past, the U.S. government was authorized by the Administrative Procedures Act (1946) to withhold from the public any and all records. Government officials were under no obligation to release information, regardless of its nature or importance to citizens. All that changed in 1966 when Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act, designed to increase the accountability of government officials to the public and to end government censorship of official information.
The Freedom of Information Act requires that records kept by the executive branch of government (the president, vice president, and Cabinet) be made available upon request to any citizen. Some classes of information are exempt from the act. These include documents relating to national security, internal memos that do not contain factual information, certain law enforcement or confidential business documents, documents that would involve an invasion of privacy, and information protected from public scrutiny by other laws.
The executive branch showed some reluctance to comply with the law. As a result, Congress amended the act to make it more difficult for government officials to withhold information. Congress passed several other "open government" acts, including the Privacy Act of 1974, the Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976, and the Presidential Records Act of 1978.
In addition to preventing the government from concealing important information from the public, the Freedom of Information Act seems to have altered the behavior of government officials. It brought to light certain secret and possibly illegal investigations by federal law enforcement agencies, and the publicity resulted in some changes in law enforcement. One study found that the quality of some government work improved after official records were opened to public scrutiny.
The Supreme Court did not support the public's right to government information until 1980. In that year it ruled in Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia that the public had a right to be present at a criminal trial. The Court concluded that the First Amendment gave the public the right to attend trials because citizen oversight lessened the possibility of abuse in the judicial system.