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WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, more than 80 pro-democracy organizations and individuals sent a letter to the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) raising serious concerns about recommendations that could delegitimize mass public comments that are often submitted as part of government proceedings and rulemakings.  

ACUS, an independent federal agency, is weighing how other federal agencies should treat mass comments that grassroots and public-interest groups submit. On Tuesday, ACUS is convening the third in a series of meetings to discuss recommended guidelines for federal agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission, that could seriously curtail the public’s ability to engage in important policymaking procedures.

“Many of our organizations work to raise awareness of federal rulemakings and to lower the barriers to public participation in these administrative processes,” reads the letter the pro-democracy groups submitted. “We are troubled that your recommendations would be interpreted by agencies to treat or disregard bona fide mass comments as an undue burden and to display such comments in a way that could easily obscure the number of individuals who have made their voices heard by expressing similar sentiments in comments.”

The letter signers include the ACLU, the Center for Disability Rights, Common Cause, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press Action, Greenpeace US, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Employment Law Project, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Native Public Media, the Open Technology Institute, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Public Citizen, Inc., the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United Church of Christ, Office of Communications, Inc., and Working Narratives.

The signers are urging ACUS to recognize the central importance of mass public comments in rulemaking procedures and to reject any recommendations that would silence the voices of millions of people of color, who are systematically excluded from participating in other formal policymaking processes.

Free Press Action Senior Policy Counsel Carmen Scurato made the following statement:

“The government needs to make it easier for people to submit public comments, not more difficult. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have their voice heard as federal agencies weigh crucial policies. This is a core democratic principle: Our nation’s laws demand that people have this opportunity to participate. Allowing such participation is especially critical for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other communities of color — who are disproportionately impacted by harmful and secretive changes made to federal policies.

“Comments that agencies receive from the public at large must not be treated as the same as fraudulent comments generated to distort and manipulate policy decisions. Just last week, the New York State Attorney General’s Office exposed a secretive effort, funded by the broadband industry, to flood an FCC proceeding with millions of paid-for comments in an attempt to manufacture a false impression of opposition to Net Neutrality rules.

“We’re encouraged that the most-recent draft of the ACUS recommendation attempts to distinguish between real and fake comments. But we remain concerned that the proposal may still denigrate mass-public comments as disruptive to rulemaking procedures. This view is anti-democratic and only disempowers the communities that federal-rule changes most impact.

“ACUS must reject any changes that would discourage public participation or bury comments submitted in bulk by the public or by grassroots organizations representing them. It should instead focus on encouraging the use of technical tools that would allow agencies to more efficiently process comments, no matter the number, and make it easier for people to be heard.”

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