Wonderful quotations about freedom of information abound.
FreedomInfo.org has compiled the following collection of 81 entries, arranged chronologically from the 18th century to very recent times.
One recent addition is from Aruna Roy: “The right to know is the right to live.”
Please help us expand and improve this list.
Precise citations are needed in some cases. The list could use more regional variation. The many internet collections of quotations lack sourcing and are sometimes inaccurate.
For one standard quote, the sourcing is being challenged.
“Information is the currency of democracy,” is often attributed to US President Thomas Jefferson. But there is no evidence that Jefferson ever used this phrase, according to the official website at Monticello, his home in Virginia. Rather, the quote first appeared in 1971, attributed to Jefferson in a speech by US consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
What this list isn’t, at least now, is a compendium of definitions, such as the many for “transparency.” This list is also light on ponderous material from the preambles of laws.
Nor does it include negative quotes, such as, “Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of state,” said Cardinal Richelieu.
The goal is to have an evolving list.
Suggest more quotes! Send submissions to email@example.com
Credits and Caveats
The list is derived from a variety of sources.
The FreedomInfo.org list has been tightened to drop political promises, time-limited assessments and quotes about related matters, such as freedom of expression.
The FreedomInfo.org list includes offerings culled from these valuable websites:
– A huge trove assembled by Jeremy Lewis, a political science professor at Huntington College, Montgomery, Ala., divided into sections including on secrecy and wartime security. It includes unusual material, such as from the US Army & Marines Field Manual.
– A collection assembled by The Freedom of Information and Privacy Association of British Colombia.
– A selection from Georgia Southern University.
– A website created to protest concerning an environmental issues at George Air Force Base (California).
– Twelve screens of quotes on secrets and secrecy on Dumb.com.
– Even a Facebook page of famous quotes.
The FreedomInfo.org List of Quotes on Freedom of Information
“Finally, it is also an important right in a free society to be freely allowed to contribute to society’s well-being. However, if that is to occur, it must be possible for society’s state of affairs to become known to everyone, and it must be possible for everyone to speak his mind freely about it. Where this is lacking, liberty is not worth its name. Matters of war and some foreign negotiations need to be concealed for some time and not become known by many, but not on account of proper citizens however, but because of the enemies. Much less should peacetime matters and that which concerns domestic wellbeing be withheld from inhabitants’ eyes. Otherwise, it might easily happen that only foreigners who wish harm find out all secrets through envoys and money, but the people of the country itself, who ideally would give useful advice, are ignorant of most things. On the other hand, when the whole country is known, at least the observant do see what benefits or harms, and disclose it to everybody, where there is freedom of the written word. Only then, can public deliberations be steered by truth and love for the fatherland, on whose commonweal each and everyone depends.” Peter Forsskål, 1759. Paragraph 21 of a pamphlet called Thoughts on Civil Liberty.
“The freedom of a nation cannot be upheld by laws alone, but also by the light of the nation and knowledge of their use.” Anders Chydenius, 1763. Chydenius was an enlightenment thinker and politician (1729-1803), whose work helped inspire the first freedom of information law, in Sweden and Finland in 1766. His work is described in a 2006 book and on the website of the Anders Chydenius Foundation.
“In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape, have full swing. Only in proportion as publicity has place can any of the checks, applicable to judicial injustice, operate. Where there is no publicity there is no justice.” Jeremy Bentham, (1748-1832) British philosopher. Constitutional Code, Book II, ch. XII, sect. XIV. The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the superintendence of … John Bowring, (Edinburgh: Tait, 1843) vol. ix, p. 493.
“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of regular government.” Jeremy Bentham, On Publicity from The Works of Jeremy Bentham volume 2, part 2 (1839).
“Without publicity, no good is permanent; under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.” Jeremy Bentham, 1768.
The best project prepared in darkness, would excite more alarm than the worst, undertaken under the auspices of publicity. Jeremy Bentham, On Publicity from The Works of Jeremy Bentham volume 2, part 2 (1839).
“That a secret policy saves itself from some inconveniences I will not deny; but I believe, that in the long run it creates more than it avoids; and that of two governments, one of which should be conducted secretly and the other openly, the latter would possess a strength, a hardihood, and a reputation which would render it superior to all the dissimulations of the other.” Jeremy Bentham, On Publicity from The Works of Jeremy Bentham volume 2, part 2 (1839).
“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” James Madison, 1822. American president and an author of the American Constitution, Epilogue: Securing the Republic (1822). James Madison to W.T. Barry. Chapter 18 Document 35, 4 Aug, 1822 9:103-9.
[Note: US journalist Michael Doyle in 2002 addressed the context of Madison’s letter, saying it was written about education.]
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right… and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.” John Adams, 1765. Second US President. A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.” John Adams.
“The liberties of people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” Patrick Henry, American colonial revolutionary, June 5, 1788.
“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 8, 1789. From a letter to Richard Price.
“Information is the currency of democracy.” Attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but the website at Monticello, his home in Virginia, reports no evidence that Jefferson used this phrase and says it first appeared in 1971 in a speech by Ralph Nader.
“Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.” John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, letter (23 January 1861), published in Lord Acton and his Circle (1906) by Abbot Gasquet, Letter 24.
“Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.” Abraham Lincoln, 1861. 16th US President.
“As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.” Benjamin Disraeli, 1880. British Prime Minister.
“Government ought to be all outside and no inside. . . . Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety.” Woodrow Wilson, 1912. U.S. President. From his campaign book, The New Freedom.
“Publicity is one of the purifying elements of politics. Nothing checks all the bad practices of politics like pubic exposure.” Woodrow Wilson. Quoted in R. Goodin, 1992, Motivating Political Morality, Cambridge, Mass.; Blackwell.
“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Louis D. Brandeis, 1913. US Supreme Court Justice (1916–1939). From “What Publicity Can Do,” Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 20, 1913, reprinted in Other People’s Money And How the Bankers Use It, a collection of Brandeis essays first published as a book in 1914, and reissued in 1933.
“I hope also that real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused.” Mahatma Gandhi 1925. Swaraj is translated as self rule or freedom. The quote is on page 114 of Selections from Gandhi, 1957, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, and is here online.
“The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of its people, and a people strong enough and well informed enough to maintain its sovereign control over its government.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1938. US President. From a Fireside Chat radio broadcast.
The final aim [of a democratic assembly]….is the voting of wise decisions. The voters, therefore, must be made as wise as possible. The welfare of the community requires that those who decide issues shall understand them. They must know what they are voting about. And this, in turn, requires that so far as time allows, all facts and interests relevant to the problem shall be fully and fairly presented…As the self-governing community seeks, by the method of voting, to gain wisdom in action, it can find it only in the minds of its individual citizens. If they fail, it fails. Alexander Meiklejohn, 1948. A philosopher, university administrator, and free-speech advocate. He served as dean of Brown University and president of Amherst College. From a book, Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, Harper Brothers
“The more that government becomes secret, the less it remains free.” James Russell Wiggins, 1956. US newspaper editor.
“The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.” Niels Bohr. Danish physicist (1885-1962).
“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings,” John F. Kennedy, 1961. US President.
“A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” John F. Kennedy, 1962.
“We seek a free flow of information…we are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values.” John F. Kennedy, February 1962.
“Nothing so diminishes democracy as secrecy.” Ramsey Clark, 1967. U.S. Attorney General.
“… the only effective restraint upon executive policy in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry – in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.” Potter Stewart, 1971. US Supreme Court Justice writing in the Pentagon Papers case (New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. at 727-30).
“When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and – eventually – incapable of determining their own destinies.” Richard Nixon, 1972. US President.
“Unfortunately, secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction – it is difficult to kick the habit.” Edward Teller, 1973. Nuclear scientist in commentary article.
“The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything, that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing.” Justice K K Mathew, former Judge, Supreme Court of India (1975)
“The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” United States Supreme Court, 1978. In NLRB v. Robbins Tire Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242.
“Where a society has chosen to accept democracy as its credal faith, it is elementary that the citizens ought to know what their government is doing.” Justice P N Bhagwati, former Chief Justice, Supreme Court of India, 1981.
“I believe that a guarantee of public access to government information is indispensable in the long run for any democratic society…. if officials make public only what they want citizens to know, then publicity becomes a sham and accountability meaningless.” Sissela Bok, 1982. Swedish philosopher.
“Power always has to be kept in check; power exercised in secret, especially under the cloak of national security, is doubly dangerous.” William Proxmire. US Senator.
“Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but the Freedom of Information Act lets us know when they do not.” Patrick Leahy, 1996. US Senator.
“One of the things that almost never works is secrecy – particularly secrecy in defense of dumbness.” Newt Gingrich, 1996. Speaker of the US House.
“The overarching purpose of access to information legislation … is to facilitate democracy. It does so in two related ways. It helps to ensure first, that citizens have the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, and secondly, that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry.” Gerard LaForest, 1997. Supreme Court Justice of Canada in Dagg vs. Canada.
“Secrecy is a form of government regulation.” US Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, 1997.
“Excessive secrecy has significant consequences when policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate.” US Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, 1997.
“Secrecy is for losers…. It is time to dismantle government secrecy, this most persuasive of Cold War-era regulations. It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness that is already upon us.” Patrick Moynihan, 1998. A US Senator in his book Secrecy: The American Experience.
“Governments that try to control information are fighting a losing battle and if they bother trying, will face exorbitant costs.” Thomas Freidman, 1999 New York Times International Affairs Correspondent.
“A government by secrecy benefits no one. It injures the people it seeks to serve; it damages its own integrity and operation. It breeds distrust, dampens the fervor of its citizens and mocks their loyalty.” Russell Long. US senator.
“Given that the public has paid for the gathering of government information, who owns the information? Is it the private province of the government official, or does it belong to the public at large? I would argue that information gathered by public officials at public expense is owned by the public — just as the chairs and buildings and other physical assets used by government belong to the public.” Joseph Stiglitz, Jan. 27, 1999. The Nobel prize-winning economist and former chief economist at the World Bank said this in an Oxford lecture, “On Liberty, the Right to Know, and Public Disclosure.”
“Secrecy provides some insulation against being accused of making a mistake… The second incentive that public officials have for pursuing secrecy is that secrecy provides the opportunity for special interests to have greater sway… Secrecy is the bedrock of [this] persistent form of corruption, which undermines confidence in democratic governments in so much of the world.” Joseph Stiglitz, Jan. 27, 1999. The Nobel prize-winning economist and former chief economist at the World Bank, said this in an Oxford lecture, “On Liberty, the Right to Know, and Public Disclosure.”
“We must never forget that the free flow of information is essential to a democratic society.” Bill Clinton, 2000. US President in veto message on Intelligence Re-Authorization Bill.
“When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people.” Damon Keith, Aug. 26, 2002. Judge in U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, 303 F.3d 681.
“Democracy dies behind closed doors.” Damon Keith, Aug. 26, 2002. US appeals court judge in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, 303 F.3d 681.
“Secrecy has its place, but governments are always tempted to overuse the ‘secret’ stamp. When that happens, it can come at the cost of the public’s stake in such other values as safety or clean air and water.” Patrick Leahy and Carl Levin, 2003. US senators in Restore America’s Freedom of Information.
“The practice of routinely holding information away from the public creates ‘subjects’ rather than ‘citizens’.” The International Advisory Commission of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, 2003. From page 12 of the commission’s report, “Open Sesame: Looking for the Right to Information in the Commonwealth.”
“Democratic governance involves public debate and open decision-making; hence, the organization of interest groups, the free exchange of ideas, opinions and information is essential. Addressing the information and communication needs of the poor is also essential – the poor often lack information that is vital to their lives – information on basic rights and entitlements, information on public services, health, education, employment etc. They also lack visibility and voice to enable them to define policy priorities and access resources.” United Nations Development Programme, 2004. Access Position paper
“Official information that enhances people’s capacity to exercise their rights belongs in the public domain. This information must be accessible and understandable.” United Nations Development Programme, 2004. Access Position paper.
“The free exchange of information between the government and the people who create that government, the people who elect that government, is absolutely crucial to the democratic process. One of our greatest freedoms is to have a right to know what our government is doing.” Courtney Cox, 2005. A Benton, Ill. attorney who won an appellate court ruling affirming that a FOIA requester is not required to explain why the information is being sought.
“Transparency is Big Government’s worst enemy.” Mark Tapscott, 2005. Director of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank.
“There’s something about official life that makes people want to have power. And secrecy is power.” Anthony Lewis, 2006. U.S. journalist. Interview.
“Secrecy is a red flag to journalists, rightly so. Governments use it to hide corruption and incompetence, and to increase their unaccountable power.” Anthony Lewis, 2009. U.S. journalist. “Journalistic Freedom and Privacy: A Case of Relative Compatibility,” 43 SUFFOLK U. L. REV. 79, 87 (2009).
“Secrecy is the freedom zealots dream of: no watchman to check the door, no accountant to check the books, no judge to check the law. The secret government has no constitution. The rules it follows are the rules it makes up.” Bill Moyers. U.S. journalist
“Power corrupts, and there is nothing more corrupting than power exercised in secret.” Daniel Schorr. U.S. journalist.
“A fundamental premise of American democratic theory is that government exists to serve the people. … Public records are one portal through which the people observe their government, ensuring its accountability, integrity, and equity while minimizing sovereign mischief and malfeasance.” Maureen O’Connor,2006. Justice in Ohio Supreme Court writing in Kish v. City of Akron, 846 N.E.2d 811, 816 (Ohio 2006). (Note: Widely and mistakenly credited to US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner.)
“Open government is strongly correlated to quality of life. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it (plans which cause injustice are revealed and opposed before implementation). Open government exposes, and so corrects, corruption. Historically, the most resilient form of open government is one where leaking and publication is easy. Public leaking, being an act of ethical defection to the majority, is by its nature a democratising force. Hence a system enables everyone to leak safely to a ready audience is the most cost effective means of promoting good government — in health and medicine, in food supply, in human rights, in arms controls and democratic institutions.” WikiLeaks.org, Jan. 2007
“This is not a matter of red versus blue. Conservatives desire a government that does not exceed its legitimate authority. Liberals desire a government that is accountable and responsive to the needs of the public. But secrecy thwarts both of those desires.” James Neff, 2007. Neff is investigative-projects editor at The Seattle Times.
“Excessive administration secrecy… feeds conspiracy theories and reduces the public’s confidence in government.” John McCain, 2008. Candidate for US president.
“Access to public records gives citizens the opportunity to participate in public life, help set priorities, and hold their governments accountable. A free flow of information can be an important tool for building trust between a government and its citizens. It also improves communication within government to make the public administration more efficient and more effective in delivering services to its constituency. But, perhaps most importantly, access to information is a fundamental human right and can be used to help people exercise other critical human rights, such as clean water, healthcare, and education. Access to information has been more recently recognized as an instrument that can be utilized to fight poverty in developing nations.” The Carter Center, 2009.
“The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.” Barack Obama, Jan. 21, 2009.
“Openness fosters the fair administration of justice and, like a watchdog, protects citizens from arbitrary state action.”Marie Deschamps, 2011. Writing for the majority in Canadian Broadcasting Corp. v Canada (Attorney General)  1 SCR 19.
“The great democratizing power of information has given us all the chance to effect change and alleviate poverty in ways we cannot even imagine today. Our task … is to make that change real for those in need, wherever they may be. With information on our side, with knowledge a potential for all, the path to poverty may be reversed.” Kofi Annan, June 22, 1997. The UN Secretary General spoke at a 1997 World Bank conference “Global Knowledge `97” in Toronto, Canada
“In a government like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. .. The responsibility of officials to explain or to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against oppression.” KK Mathew, Justice ofSupreme Court of India. 1975 in State of UP v Raj Naraid, AIR 1975 Cc 865.
“[I]n itself, the issue of access to information does not have a natural constituency. What is required is to connect the issue with people’s daily pressing concerns, and to ensure that people see their right to information in the broader context of their right to development.” John Samuel, 2002. From a forum “Partners or protagonists? – case studies in civil society advocacy.”
“Transparency is Big Government’s worst enemy…” Mark Tapscott, 2005. From column by Tapscott, the Director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC.
“As a society we seem to be losing our ability to rationally debate complicated policy decisions. Secrecy aggravates the problem by excluding people from the debate, or by narrowing their frames of reference. Nothing less than the future of American democracy is at stake. Steven Aftergood, 2005. Aftergood heads the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, Washington, DC.
“Transparency promotes development indirectly, through better control of corruption and capture, which in turn we know are breaks to development and growth.” Daniel Kaufmann, 2005. “Special Report, Transparency Matters: the `Second generation’ of Institutional Reform.” The World Bank
“An uninformed public can do no good. Only with information can we contribute and improve the way we live. Ignorance really is not bliss. The more secrecy we have within our government, the less accountability.” Robert Freeman, 2006. Executive director of the New York state Committee on Open Government.
“Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of dictatorship.” Bruce Coville, well-known American writer of children’s books. This quote comes from a 2006 unpublished speech by the author, according to a Coville conversation with FreedomInfo.org.
The public has a right to know about misconduct by public officials who are paid for with public tax dollars. Mark Schlosberg, 2007. American Civil Liberties Union official.
“The public has the right to know how pubic money is being spent.” Manfred Redelfs, 2010. German journalist and scholar.
“Information is the currency that every citizen requires to participate in the life and governance of society.” Justice A. P. Shah, former Chief Justice, Delhi and Madras High Courts, 2010.
“The right to know is the right to live.” Aruna Roy, 2014. The Indian social activist and a leading force behind the Indian Right to Information law led participants at the Open Government partnership meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in this chant.
The free flow of information and ideas lies at the heart of the very notion of democracy and is crucial to effective respect for human rights. UNESCO website, 2015.
“The best defense of an open society is open information. We are not safer in the dark.” From article by Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, George Washington University, 2015.