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Ancient Coins: Freedom of Information and New Import Restrictions sought on Greek “Cultural Property”

By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting Blog

Comments related to issues of cultural property management

The Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, was born from the notion that “the people” (as in each individual citizen) have a constitutional right to know how the government acts in their behalf. This is of course a democratic notion that nationalist governments do not share. One might wonder at times if it is a notion that the U.S. Government shares?

FOIA has been amended and altered in its execution by Executive Branch order or parallel legislation many times during the past 24 years. While a forest of trees have been exterminated in filling FOIA requests, the amount of information provided to the public has been a matter of constant and continuous concern and variability. What the situation boils down to, in a nutshell, is that the Executive Branch of the U.S. government releases eactly and only what it wants to release and when it wants to release it. The public often is obligated to fight in the courts for the most innocuous of details about some item or action of interest.

Filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit is an adventure in frustration—fraught with government impediments. The prosecution of a simple suit can be delayed by repeated government requests for extensions of time and the excruciatingly slow pace of the legal system in general. Then, the ultimate judgement is not always a black and white reflection of law. Political persuasion is not a stranger to the bench, and the outcome of litigation can depend, it seems, nearly as much on luck of the draw as on the merit of arguments presented. The consequence of this cumbersome review process is that the impetus for a request may well be moot by the time a judgement is rendered. The suit itself is sometimes more important, as a statement of dissatisfaction with government, and demand for accountability, than the material that might conceivably be released.

Why should any person, or organization, have to endure the trials and tribulations of litigation against their government to affirm basic rights promised by the law of the land?

The cause of this pervasive and untenable attitude of secrecy and unresponsiveness in American government is its very structure. Law is rightly regarded by the Legislative Branch as a means to assure rights and protections. Elected officials within the Executive Branch typically espouse a similar view. However, neither elected officials nor political appointees are directly involved in the execution and enforcement of law. This key, and often most important, element of any law is delegated to an army of bureaucrats that are directly responsible for that part where the rubber meets the road. The technical authority of politically appointed Secretaries and Undersecretaries, etc., means little in a world of revolving doors. Just as bureaucratic agencies can drag an issue on in the courts for years, they also can “stonewall” the most ardent elected or appointed official with relative ease and virtual impunity. The judiciary often seems, perhaps understandably, reluctant to serve as the nation’s guardian against government excess.

Do we really have Freedom of Information in America today? Well, that depends on who you are, who you are asking, and what you are asking. Ancient coin collectors and dealers obviously do not enjoy much freedom to examine the workings of State Department processes that threaten their avocation and trade. The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is one of the most secretive and manipulative bureaucracies in Washington. For the past decade, national investigative reporters have exposed that secrecy in the media, legislators have repeatedly expressed concern about that secrecy and one former Chairman of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee called that secrecy “unAmerican”. The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is presently arguing in the U.S. Court of Appeals that the widely experienced secrecy at State is unfounded and rises beyond the limited exemptions allowed by Congress.

Import Restrictions sought on Greek Cultural Property

A request from Greece asking that import restrictions be imposed on cultural property will be considered by the US State Department in October.

A Federal Register notice filed by the US State Department (DOS) on 25 August 2010 announces receipt of a request for import restrictions on cultural property from Greece. Despite all the previous concerns expressed about fairness, again the comment period is rather short. Although the request was received by DOS on 7/2/10, notice to the public was delayed nearly two months.

In contrast, comments from the public must be received by 9/22/10 a window of 28 days. This tight window to assemble arguments and publicize the issue to interested parties is increasingly typical of the State Department’s public comment policies.

A three-hour public hearing by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee is scheduled for 10/12/10. Oral comments at that hearing are typically limited to five minutes. The option to fax or email comments has also been eliminated.

In recent CPAC deliberations, thousands of faxes were received from coin collectors. Instead, it will now be necessary for those wishing to comment to use the online comment feature of the http://www.regulations.gov website. Those electronic comments will reportedly be made available for review by the public. Though a summary of the request is promised, the actual details of the request are secret. In other words, it is unlikely that DOS will announce whether coins are to be considered in this request.

It may be worth noting that coins were included in import restrictions recently imposed on cultural property from China and Cyprus. Members of the archaeological community also argued before CPAC recently that coins should be added to a renewal of the Memorandum of Agreement with Italy. That action is still pending. More information about this request will be posted here as it becomes available. Specific details of the comment system, along with talking points, will be provided in the forthcoming ACCG newsletter.

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