Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Papers of the Rich and Famous

Allowing public access to the papers of important people is not an inalienable right, but it is a vitally important aspect of an open society.

I am elated to read that a priceless collection of Martin Luther King Jr.'s handwritten documents and books won't be sold at auction and instead will be given to Morehouse College, his alma mater, where they will be available to folks like you and I.

A coalition of businesses and philanthropic leaders led by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin bought the collection from the King family for an undisclosed amount, according to Morehouse College President Walter Massey.

The collection of the civil rights leader was expected to sell for $15 million to $30 million at Sotheby's auction house in New York, but Massey said the Atlanta group offered more than that.
The papers span 1946 to 1968, the year King was assassinated. They include 7,000 handwritten items, including his early Alabama sermons and a draft of his "I Have a Dream" speech, which he delivered Aug. 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Atlanta is King's birthplace and where his wife, Coretta Scott King, raised their four children after his assassination. It also is where she founded the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and where King and his wife are entombed.

Said Sotheby's Vice Chairman David Redden:
I can't imagine a better home than the home of Dr. King for this collection. It was there for years, it's going to be there forever. I think that's a marvelous conclusion to this extraordinary process. It guarantees that it will be looked after properly and made available to the public.
The Bush administration's penchant for secrecy extends to presidential papers that routinely are made available to the public after a president leaves office.

One of George Bush's first acts was to issue an executive order misleadingly entitled “Further Implementation of the Presidential Records Act.”
This order effectively overturned an act of Congress and a Supreme Court decision guaranteeing public access to presidential papers and could make it far more difficult for Americans to learn of government abuses.
In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act, declaring that the U.S. will retain ownership and control of presidential records. The act was a response to the clashes between Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Nixon administration over who owned Nixon’s records, including Watergate-related tape recordings.

The act requires that the unclassified papers of a president be routinely released 12 years after the president’s term ends. There are provisions to justify non-disclosure of information that could threaten national security.

In restricting access, the White House misrepresented both the 1978 law and the new executive order.

Said Bush:

We responded to a new law written by Congress that lays out a procedure that I think is fair for past presidents.
And White House flak Ari Fleisher:
As a result of the new law that is now going into effect, and thanks to the executive order that the president will soon issue, more information will be forthcoming.

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