SLA Joins Push for Greater Access to Presidents’ Records

14 January 2014 — Researchers and the public would have greater access to the records of former U.S. presidents if legislation being championed by the Special Libraries Association passes Congress and is signed into law.

SLA is one of roughly 20 organizations, including the American Historical Association, the Center for Effective Government, and the Society of Professional Journalists, that have signed a letter urging passage of H.R. 1233, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would impose a time limit during which former presidents would be allowed to assert a claim of privilege to prevent documents from being made public. It would also establish a process for managing the disclosure of records in the event a former president claims privilege, and it would grant the incumbent president authority to decide whether to uphold such a claim.

“In the absence of legislation like H.R. 1233,” the letter states, “the process for dealing with claims of privilege by a former president has been left to the discretion of each incoming president through the issuance of executive orders. Those orders have varied widely, and have had an impact on the public’s access to presidential records.”

The letter was sent to the leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which approved H.R. 1233 on 20 March 2013 and forwarded it to the full House of Representatives for consideration. No action has been taken by the House as of this writing.

In addition to describing the benefits of H.R. 1233, the letter also addresses potential concerns about the bill.

“We note some have criticized the bill on the grounds that it creates a new, constitutionally-based privilege that former presidents may assert over the records of their presidency,” it states. “We do not believe this accurately describes the legislation. To the contrary, H.R. 1233 merely provides a process by which a claim of privilege can be resolved within the executive branch, but does not itself recognize a new privilege.”

For more information, please contact Doug Newcomb at SLA headquarters.

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