Access to Information: A Universal Human Right

First Amendment, General Interest, Information Access, Library Bill of Rights

By: April Dawkins

One of the core tenets of the library profession is a belief in the right of people to have access to information. Our beliefs are set forth in the Library Bill of Rights and the interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights. Access to information is at the center of everything we do as librarians.

In the United States, the right to access information is closely tied to the First Amendment to the Constitution. Within the First Amendment is the clause that American citizens have the right to free speech. However, in 1943, in Martin v. Struthers, the U.S. Supreme Court first expanded the right to free speech as also having a corollary right to receive information. They held that free speech without anyone to hear it served no purpose. Numerous court cases have followed Martin which have expanded and refined the idea of the right to receive information. Not every country in the world has laws that protect the rights of free speech or the right to receive or access information.

In reaction to the horrors of World War II, the United Nations in December 1948 proclaimed that all humans have rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of these rights is the right to access information. Article 19 of the Declaration states: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In late January, I attended the Association for Library and Information Science Educators (ALISE) conference in Atlanta. This conference is typically held right before ALA’s Midwinter Meeting. One of the keynote speakers was Laura Neumann from The Carter Center. Knowing about The Carter Center’s efforts in monitoring international elections and improving world health, I wondered what Neumann might be able to share about the library and information world. I had a good deal to learn about its programs. In particular, as part of its world peace efforts, The Carter Center has a program for Global Access to Information.

One of the goals of the program is to encourage the creation and implementation of information laws in countries around the world. More than 100 countries have information laws; however, they are not always implemented effectively. Access to government information allows citizens to understand how their governments are making decisions that impact their daily lives. The Carter Center has been working to develop an assessment tool (the IAT) to assist public agencies in determining if they are effectively implementing their own information laws. The tool has been piloted in 11 countries.

Additionally, The Carter Center recently recognized a gap in the information access of women around the world because of cultural or legislative barriers. They have implemented a new program on Women and the Right of Access to Information in three countries: Liberia, Bangladesh and Guatemala.

Access to information is an important universal right that helps to ensure transparency in government and opportunities for economic advancement. While information access laws are important, it is equally important that the laws are then implemented so that all people have equal access to information.


 

April DawkinsApril Dawkins is currently a doctoral candidate in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation is understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. April is part of the NxtWave program funded by an IMLS grant, a national cohort of Ph.D. students whose focus is school librarianship. As a graduate teaching assistant with SLIS, April is teaching Information Literacy and Young Adult Materials. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for 15 years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association. April also serves on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. Find her on Twitter @aprldwkns.

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