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When public information is kept in a vault

Information may be the most significant asset held by states, localities and the federal government. That’s part of the reason why so much of it has been made legally public to men and women who aren’t in the government themselves.

Yet, Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial editor of The Washington Post labeled a bevy of federal non-disclosure agreements “not just oppressive, but constitutionally repugnant.”

Not long ago, we wrote an article, for Governing, which takes note that non-disclosure agreements and confidential settlements appear to be in ever-wider use in states and localities.

For example, as the column reports, “Secret agreements have also generated controversy in Massachusetts state government. There, The Boston Globe has made a public records request for copies of 33 confidential settlements signed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo since 2010. So far, it has refused the Globe’s request. But in March, the House did pass a measure to release former chamber employees from any non-disclosure agreements they had signed. . .

“Legislation to curtail agreements or settlements that require confidentiality have since been introduced in Pennsylvania as well as California, New Jersey, New York and Washington state. Most of the bills specifically relate to sexual harassment or discrimination and would apply to both the public and private sector.”

Fortunately for the citizenry, the press, advocacy groups and others interested in seeing information that legally belongs to them and is paid for by public dollars, some states and cities already limit secret agreements. That includes San Francisco, which prohibits the city from entering into confidential settlements.

All of this can be a blow to potential whistleblowers. Though the feds strongly protect people’s ability to report wrongdoing, state laws tend to be somewhat weaker and may not even be known to employees, Tom Devine told us. He is legal director of the Government Accountability Project, an organization dedicated to protecting whistleblowers.


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