Editorial: A powerful disinfectant for government

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

An informed citizenry remains the key to maintaining a vigorous democracy, regardless of the level of government.

Citizens won't have that information unless they demand it, the press gathers it and there are laws and regulations

in place to safeguard access to the workings of government.

Sunshine Week, which runs through Saturday, was established to make sure the importance of open government and journalists’ ability to share information remain before the American public. It’s a conversation rooted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which directs Congress to “make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ....” Despite this powerful declaration the public is aware these words are sometimes ignored.

It's vital that Americans see the reluctance of government to be transparent at times and the need to push back against attempts to abridge people’s rights to this information. The government's duty

includes providing the public with meeting minutes in a timely fashion, giving consistent access to police logs and reports and charging as little as possible for copies of records. It also means conducting the public's business in public, using closed-door executive sessions only for the limited purposes (such as personnel issues) prescribed by law. These are among the reasons that the federal Freedom of Information Act and state open meeting and open records laws were enacted​. And they are why

the media and rights groups continue to bring violations to the public’s and court’s attention as well as urging government to enact stronger laws that promote openness by our local, state and federal governments.

The call for reforms is one of the reasons that the Legislature is working on updating its open records law to better reflect the convenience that technology affords us in access, including increasing what should be up online, how quickly this information should be available and the cost.

This is also why the media and other groups continue to call for an end to the exemption the Legislature enjoys from many portions of the public-records and open-meeting laws. Along with promoting more openness,

​any reform must put more teeth into the laws to punish violations, requiring public offices that unduly restrict access to pay stiff financial penalties and reimburse the legal costs of those who have successfully challenged them.

During the course of our nation’s history, many people inside and outside of government have spoken about the need for openness as an integral part of our democracy. “Publicity,” said Louis D. Brandeis in a Harper’s Weekly article before he became a Supreme Court justice, “is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

That thought, written more than 100 years ago, remains at the heart of Sunshine Week. Let the light shine in.