The People Have a Right to Know


Openness and transparency are the two of the most important features of the democratic society. People want not only to elect their governments but also be able to see how their work is carried out. In other words, the members of any democratic society value the opportunity to control the activities of their government most of all. In the American society, the concepts of openness and transparency are not only understood but also supported by the US Constitution, 1967 Freedom of Information Act, and 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act (Smolla, 2009). However, these laws and legislative acts do not spread the “people’s right to know” over private business of daily lives of individual citizens.

Governmental Matters

According to Smolla (2009), the “people’s right to know” should be basically considered as “the right of the people to know about the actions of their own government”. The access to the data on the governmental activities is regulated by the above mentioned 1967 Freedom of Information Act and 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act, which hold that all governmental data should be open to public consideration with only 9 (nine) exceptions. The latter include national security secrets, trade and financial secrets, law enforcement records, internal agency data related to its personnel and relations with other agencies, and geological secret data (Smolla, 2009).

Private Life

At the same time, there are no indications in either of the above mentioned acts about the right of people to inquire about the private lives of individual citizens (Smolla, 2009). Moreover, the access of ordinary Americans to the government owned or run institutions or processes is also limited on the basis of privacy concerns. For example, Smolla (2009) argues that courts nowadays tend to open their proceedings to public considerations, and even start allowing the television or radio stations broadcast the hearings. However, the public access is still forbidden to institutional buildings, unless they are either “public forums”, i. e. places where people are allowed to gather and express their opinions on certain events, or specific destinations for people having business in them.


Considering the reasons for such a difference in access to governmental and private information, one cannot but mention the nature of the democratic society in the United States. The right for privacy is as important as the “people’s right to know”, and there are no sings in the contemporary America that citizens will ever deny this right. Based on the considerations of privacy, a person might keep his/her personal information a secret, as well as for instance limit the access to his/her private real estate. The government also exercises this right for privacy by limiting or forbidding access to certain data or institutions for the specific groups of people. These are natural phenomena that are compatible with the basics of democracy and the “people’s right to know”.


To conclude, the democratic society in the United States considers openness and transparency of governmental activities as one of its fundamental values based on the concept of the “people’s right to know”. However, there are certain limitations to this right that might concern both specific governmental data and the private data of individual citizens, which are protected by the equally important right for privacy.


Smolla, R. (2009). The People’s Right to Know: Transparency in Government Institutions. US Department of State: International Information Programs. Web.