Census data embargo a chokehold on openness

Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Copyright © 2011 Sun-Sentinel

Last week, the Census Bureau’s reinstatement of its embargo policy smacked me in the face so hard, I still can’t figure out who is sillier – the U.S. government or me. As reporters contacted me regarding newly released information about the 2010 Census – specifically, the number of same-sex households reported across Florida – I turned to the Internet so I had the most current reports available, hoping my contributions would be accurate and substantive.

For those unfamiliar with the embargo policy, certain data is released to “members of accredited media who give their chief attention to the gathering and reporting of news” with the understanding that nothing will be published about “news releases or data products” until a defined time in the future – in this case, 12:01a.m. Aug. 18.

New to this age-old process, I had trouble wrapping my mind around it. As a biologist, I know well how one can use a philosopher’s stone to turn grains of sand into golden nuggets. But aren’t we testing new boundaries here when it comes to freedom of speech? If a no-name guy can amass a million followers by reporting a secret military operation in Afghanistan, why would we tie the hands of journalistic professionals with access to government information related to data that we, the public, reported in the first place?

Ensuring the integrity of a criminal investigation, or maintaining civility in light of our planet’s impending destruction by a meteor, wouldn’t make me think twice about a 48-hour press embargo. But when asked to publicly comment on information deemed so complicated to interpret, it hasn’t yet been made available to the public, I felt like an unwitting participant in a blind study where even Google Realtime was told to stand still.

Information related to same-sex households in Palm Beach County, or throughout Florida, isn’t new to me, and the enormous increases we’ve recorded were predictable. I am a walking database when it comes to where gays and lesbians live because of my work, and I have pretty good hunches related to race, gender, political affiliation and household income, too. I have collected so many names and direct-mail contacts over the years that I would make a Twitter post on this subject look like a black-and-white flashback. I’ve handwritten so many thank you’s to same-sex households, I can recite addresses by heart, phone numbers included.

So I was able to speak intelligently about trends I’ve observed over the 10 years since the last census, without the data. But the reason the embargo evoked my impatience is explainable only through a lens I focus on recent history.In 1990, same-sex partners – more than ever – voluntarily began reporting to the government that they existed. Over the course of the following 10 years, we saw the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy (1993), the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) and a decision that the 2000 Census would include an opportunity for unmarried, same-sex partners to report their relationships openly, and accurately.

Two federal laws and an administrative change in the collection of data later, reporting that my partner and I (like many others across the nation) were in a same-sex relationship was so earth-shattering, it made the front page of local news sections, golden retriever and all. Shortly thereafter, a slew of marriage amendments swept our nation. More than 35 states promised that marriage would only be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, no matter how families reported or perceived one another. Yet now, more people are reporting those relationships than ever, in stunning numbers.

In this way, that two-day embargo on data felt less like an attempt to make sure information was prescribed to the public precisely and more like a political tactic. It hardly seems like a scientific measure when you consider today’s technology and our unplugged access to every thought imaginable. Ignorance is most bliss when you aren’t ignorant and can act while everyone else is.

Tony Plakas is the CEO of Compass, the gay and lesbian community center of Lake Worth and the Palm Beaches.