FCC Requests Exemption in Open Meetings Law

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently sent a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation requesting an exemption from the open meeting requirements of the Government in Sunshine Act. The letter’s authors, Chairman Michael Powell and Commissioner Michael Copps, assert that the FCC needs the exemption because the open meeting requirements of the Government in Sunshine Act impair the agency’s decisional processes by impeding the commissioners’ “abilities to obtain the benefit of each other’s views, input, or comments.” Instead, the letter states, they must “rely on written communications, staff, or one-on-one meetings with each other.” It seems troubling that the commissioners have relied on these methods to avoid their legal responsibilities, and now consider these back-door tactics as too difficult and inefficient. Apparently, the commissioners would prefer to be exempt entirely from the law so they can stop secretly avoiding it. The Government in Sunshine Act ensures that the public has access to government information by requiring open meetings. Under the law, agencies must hold public meetings unless the content of the meetings falls within one or more of 10 exemptions. The exemptions are similar to those under the Freedom of Information Act and protect information exempt from disclosure by other laws; corporate trade secrets; an individual’s personal information; and law enforcement information, among others. There are also provisions that allow meetings to be closed under other specific circumstances. Since the many exemption categories allow for closed meetings when necessary, the FCC’s push for a blanket immunity seems excessive and irresponsible. The FCC also states in the letter that the Government in Sunshine Act is not necessary for “ensuring that federal agencies explain their actions to the public.” The agency believes that the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which mandates that an agency explain how it makes each decision, is sufficient for informing the public. However, the APA is not a disclosure law and would not guarantee that agencies provide the public with all the information that it has a right to know. For instance, open meetings allow the public to observe and participate in the agency’s process rather than simply being informed about final decisions after the fact. The Government in Sunshine Act is extremely important because it allows the public to participate in government decision making and holds the government accountable for its actions. It would be in the public interest if the members of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation reject the FCC’s push for secrecy, and remind the agency that it has a responsibility to be open to the public.
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