Sunshine Week time to trumpet open government

CNJ staff

In small ways and more sweeping assaults, government officials have been closing their windows to public scrutiny. It is a troubling and ironic trend. Coming as the president speaks eloquently of developing democratic institutions across the world, Americans cannot be complacent about our own.

It is time to seek more openness from federal, state and local officials.

That’s the faith and philosophy embodied in national Sunshine Week, which begins today. Sunshine Week is a project of newspapers, magazines and broadcasters concerned about the growth of government secrecy and the abuse of laws involving open government and freedom of information.

This is a week to embrace the benefits of openness in the public square, not only as a fundamental value of our society, but also as a tool of civic commerce. This is a week to urge an end to furtive secrecy that diminishes the public’s ability to weigh government policy and performance, whether on matters of war and peace, or potholes and salaries.

The cause of open government was pressed from the founding by Thomas Jefferson, third president and author of the Declaration of Independence. “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people,” he said, “the very first object should be to keep that right.”

Jefferson bridled at much of the journalism of his day — but his faith in open access to public matters didn’t rest on the wisdom or fairness of politicians or the press. It was a belief in the “marketplace of ideas,” confidence that free and competing voices would ultimately arm “the opinion of the people” with wisdom and common sense.

It must be stressed that the public’s right to know has always been vested with the people, not the news media — and never more so than in this age of electronic databases and instant communication. It’s often an alert citizen or whistleblower who spotlights a tale of official abuse or indifference. Open meetings provide a remarkable discipline for officials to touch the right bases and implement a fair judgment.

Americans get their information on government from an incredible variety of sources. In this generation, everyone — from the mainstream media to individual bloggers to interest groups with a Web site — seems to have a voice and an outlet.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter how many thousand outlets vie for public attention if they are all force-fed the same government-issue spin and pabulum and are forbidden or obstructed from digging behind the scenes.
Today’s government officials are far from the first to restrict access to public information. The world may little note nor long remember that Abraham Lincoln shut down 300 opposition newspapers during the Civil War.

It was a time of peril, and we are in times of peril today. Still, in ways that have nothing to do with national security, the Bush administration has reversed a movement to more open government that began after the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. In October, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive on Freedom of Information requests essentially requiring citizens to prove why they should be entitled to information kept by their government — instead of requiring the government to show why such information should be kept secret. The administration also removed more than 6,000 documents from government Web sites.

The executive branch is hardly the only threat to the free flow of information. Local government agencies around the nation routinely place roadblocks between citizens and public information.

C lose to home, just last year, Curry County aggressively fought off the Clovis News Journal’s efforts to access public pay records. County officials repeatedly refused to release the public documents, twice in writing, before the newspaper took them to court. The county released the records a few days after the newspaper filed a lawsuit. Perhaps even more discouraging, the county’s secret-keeping efforts cost taxpayers more than $6,000 in attorneys fees.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini once said, “Give me the right to nominate and you can vote for whomever you please.” By that token, where government controls the information upon which we base our opinion and our vote, it undermines the democracy. Sunshine Week is an opportunity to discuss the values and benefits of open government, and the threats to that cherished ideal.