This week, journalists across America are celebrating Sunshine Week. Except it really isn’t as much a celebration as it is an effort to make Americans aware of the importance of open records, open meetings and open government in general (see page A4 for more columns on this topic).
When it comes to sunshine — the word that is synonymous in the press with open government — there is rarely opportunity to let down one’s guard and truly celebrate because there is an ever-present effort by federal, state and local governments to clamp down on the freedom of information and the fundamental right of every U.S. citizen to know.
That’s what Sunshine Week is about. It’s what a free press is about. Your right to know.
As a taxpayer, you have the right to know anything and everything that your government — and the officials within it — are up to. From how much your local school is paying for janitorial supplies to whether a town council has a conflict of interest by awarding bids based on who is related to whom, there should be no secrets in government. And if you, as a citizen, want to inspect the records to find out those things for yourself, there should be no reason for your request to be denied.
Every state, and the federal government, has sunshine laws, and they have consistently been upheld by courts throughout the land. Sunshine laws are important to newspapers, like this one, because it’s how we fulfill our job of informing you, our readers. You’ll find some information obtained under Tennessee’s open records provisions on page A5 of this and every edition — who has been arrested, and what their charges are, and who is getting married. A large variety of other records are open for public inspection, as well, from divorce records to real estate transactions to elected officials’ salaries, and that public information winds up in some stories, in some form or fashion, in every issue of the newspaper that is ever published.
Sunshine laws are what also guarantees that elected officials cannot make decisions behind closed doors, away from the scrutiny of the electorate. Government officials cannot keep us — or you — out of their meetings, and they cannot meet secretly to make decisions outside of their meetings.
Government openness is important to us, because it’s our job. But it’s equally important to every reader of this newspaper, because decisions made by government affect all of us. And despite common misconceptions, the right to inspect records and ask questions is not limited to journalists; reporters, in fact, have no rights that any other citizen does not have.
That’s what Sunshine Week attempts to portray. Started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week has been promoting awareness of government transparency for 12 years . . . and will continue to promote that awareness for as long as there are those in government who would like nothing better than to wrap themselves in cloaks of secrecy.