Herald-Whig View

Democracy also requires sunshine to flourish

Posted: Mar. 16, 2017 11:40 am

SUNSHINE Week sheds light annually on the importance of public access to information.

This week, now in its 12th year, is set aside to emphasize not just the media's access, but the right of ordinary people to get the government information they want for specific reasons, or because they want to know what their government is doing.

That the people's business at every level of government, from a school board to the White House, should be conducted in public is a simple concept. Sunshine Week coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, our fourth president and an ardent supporter of free speech and freedom of information. Madison knew there is accountability when citizens can see their government do business.

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives," Madison said more than two centuries ago.

That means members of the public need to be able to attend open meetings of their governmental bodies, with few exceptions, and that citizens must be able to access documents that show what their governments and elected officials are doing.

Regrettably, officials at all levels of government routinely resist the basic principles of the Freedom of Information Act and its state equivalents. Some violations are deliberate attempts to evade public oversight, but many -- especially on the local level -- are the result of a lack of understanding of what the laws allow and how they apply to public business.

In today's age, the spread of email and other electronic forms of communication have created new challenges for those interested in making sure that government actions take place in the open.

Moreover, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration in its final year in office spent a record $36.2 million on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records under the Freedom of Information Act.

And, as the Associated Press noted, that administration set records for outright denial of access to files, refusing to quickly consider requests described as especially newsworthy, and forcing people to pay for records who had asked the government to waive search and copy fees.

Clearly, that was not what the framers of our Constitution had in mind.

The lesson in Sunshine Week is simple: Beware the leader or agency in government that seeks to shield information that is clearly public information.

When public officials want to hide something, it tends to be because they have something to hide. Democracy can only grow when exposed to light.