The 45 words of the First Amendment have been shielding us from government interference in our core freedoms since 1791 – 228 years.
Over that time, this guarantor of a “marketplace of ideas” has withstood any manner of direct challenges, including government officials of all stripes who would rather not face a watchdog press or a watchful citizen, or who see “efficiency” in not providing the details of governance to the governed.
Examples of that wrong-headed thinking are all too frequent. School boards that use “executive sessions” to make decisions later re-enacted publicly in kabuki-like theatrics, law enforcement officials who hide true statistics of crime on college campuses, federal officials who provide arbitrarily redacted – and thus worthless – records, and cowardly school authorities who stifle student journalists' reporting on serious issues to preserve reputation.
Most recently, the siren call of “privacy” is being sounded to close public access to essential records, from food safety to arrest and court records that in the aggregate document our justice system.
For a few decades, those who support transparency in government and the right of the public to have access to public records and proceedings have celebrated a national “Sunshine Week” – an annual review of where freedom of information laws stand, and an assessment of the challenges to our right to know.
At best, advocates say, the Freedom of Information Act has kept a measure of transparency alive – in law. In practice, the process of openness all too often moves at a snail's pace, more often than not overseen by at least one of the Four Horsemen of the Information Apocalypse: The Unwilling, the Underfunded, the Fearful and the Deceitful.
Sunshine Week is our annual rallying call to stand up against those who would do the public's business in private and hide from the public the records of public policy and spending.
There is no small bit of irony in that we stand just inside the threshold of the technological era that makes transparency more possible than ever with a few clicks on a keyboard.
We need to support spending on upgrades and added staff and reject the growing exceptions that thwart public access to information – laws that hide records and photos around law enforcement and criminal justice.
We cannot fail to recognize that even well-intended public officials will err; that public policy cannot be evaluated effectively without access to facts and data; or that we sometimes elect, appoint or hire those who would do harm or steal from the public treasury.
At the least, we should join in Sunshine Week. Attend a school board meeting or local court session. Use the Web to find the status of your state's FOI law. Information on all 50 states and DC is available at nfoic.org/coalitions/state-foi-resources/state-freedom-of-information-laws.
Encourage local news operations to continue to report on the institutions of government and – very important – support those that do. Support the national “New Voices” campaign to protect student journalists' right in every state to report free from censorship and intimidation.
Bring a little “sunshine” this week into your community.
Gene Policinski is president/COO of the Freedom Forum Institute, a nonprofit organization that defends the First Amendment. He is a 1972 Ball State graduate, and a former editor of the Daily News, Ball State's student-run newspaper.