Sunshine Week Shines on Open Government

swlogo-198x300Sunshine Week, which runs March 16-22, is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. It began with a group of Florida editors starting Sunshine Sunday where they held a coordinated campaign to focus on open government.

Without an effort to keep government open we could shift to a government-run society. “We would gradually see an acceleration of initiatives intended for perfectly good reasons to keep information from the public — to protect privacy or efficiency or security or internal deliberation — to the point that the public would have to prove a ‘need to know’ to penetrate the custodian’s protective shield around the government information,” says Tonda Rush, a media lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a long time National Federation of Press Women member.

Some think we are already there in many categories of records. “When that happens, we shift from an open society to a government-run society where democracy has to apologize for asking to be informed,” Rush says.

Part of an open government is Freedom of Information, which on the federal level, “creates the presumption that all the records of the federal executive branch are open, unless closed for a permissible and exempt reason,” Rush explains.“It sets an important tone of transparency and citizen-stakeholder values in our national life.”

In addition, every state has some version of an open records law (as well as open meetings laws) that give this same guarantee of citizen-facing transparency, and in that case, opens the government that works most closely with most people in their daily work and lives.

“Unfortunately, the many exemptions, competing stakeholders and sometimes conflicting court opinions have made most of these laws something of a Swiss cheese,” Rush notes. “Also, the plethora of privacy laws coming from Congress and state legislatures have created a gaping hole where public accountability is sometimes entrapped.”

To learn more about Sunshine Week visit http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org/.

 

 

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Let the Sun Shine In

March 14-20 is Sunshine Week. After this winter, we could all use a week of sunshine, but that’s not what this week is about. It’s about openness in government and letting the light in.

Journalists are the only profession protected by the U.S. Constitution and so they carry a heavy burden – most are happy to do so. When citizens don’t want to sit through a mind numbing four-hour council meeting, reporters do. When we don’t want to wade through thousands of documents to discover the truth, journalists do.

Sunshine Week is an initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. It coincides with James Madison’s birthday and National Freedom of Information Day on March 16.

The initiative is working as people are playing more of a role in the actions of their communities, according to the Sunshine Week Web site. They are learning what kinds of information they have a right to see, where to get it, how to get it and what to do if someone tries to keep it from them.

NFPW supports such openness year round through its First Amendment Network. You can join any time (no charge!) through the NFPW Web site or during the NFPW Communications Conference in Chicago, Aug. 26-28.

Nebraska Press Women member Diane Wetzel wrote an article for The North Platte Telegraph pointing out a major contribution that Nebraska made to the legal interpretation of the First Amendment. Visit the NFPW  Web site to read the entire article.

Keep the light shining!