By Roy Gutterman, March 21, 2014
This is Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to shining light on public information and the workings of government. An homage to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous statement that sunshine is the best disinfectant, press rights groups, open government advocates and regular citizens have been marking this week since 2005.
Initially, the mid-March celebration, if you want to call it that, was promoted on March 16, the birthday of James Madison, the principal writer of the First Amendment and an advocate for a free, vibrant press.
The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) founded Sunshine Week, but it has expanded with support from news organizations and a host of other press rights groups including the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Tully Center for Free Speech supports Sunshine Week.
ASNE also prepared a Sunshine Week Open Government Proclamation, which urges government entities to be more open with regard to access to public records.
In part, the proclamation states: “Whereas, James Madison, the father of our federal constitution, wrote that ‘consent of the governed’ requires that the people be able to ‘arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives’”
The proclamation also speaks to the trust between citizens and the government, especially when it comes to public records and transparency of information.
Freedom of information, as some of the Sunshine Week literature notes, is a non-partisan issue. It also spans government entities — villages, town councils, city councils, school boards, state universities, county, state and federal agencies and other government agencies. The important work of government requires these agencies maintain records and allow the public to review them. The public has a right to know and even a duty to ask.
But that does not mean the information is also readily available all the time. Every state and the federal government has freedom or information laws, which require the government to release information upon request. Of course, there are legitimate exemptions to these laws, defined in the statutes. Sometimes officials interpret the exemptions too broadly and sometimes they simply ignore the law.
This can be a problem. The National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Better Government Association in 2007 reported that 38 of the 50 states received an F for failing to adequately comply with public records requests under the respective state laws. Only two states – Nebraska and New Jersey – even earned a B.
But another report, 2010’s Access Across America, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, found while law enforcement agencies appear to be tighter and tighter with public information, journalists across the country are not asking enough government agencies for records.
All over the country, journalists and press advocacy groups are marking the week with discussions on public issues, speeches and exercises to challenge government agencies to be more open. Perhaps the best way to celebrate Sunshine Week is to simply think about public information, and if you happen to be a journalist, to seek and use public information for your stories.