Editorial: Public’s right to know requires vigilant protection

By on March 18, 2010

“I know of no safe repository of the ultimate power of society but people. And if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take the power from them, but to inform them by education.”
—Thomas Jefferson

“I always believe that ultimately, if people are paying attention, then we get good government and good leadership. And when we get lazy, as a democracy and civically start taking shortcuts, then it results in bad government and politics.”
—Barack Obama

This week is considered Sunshine Week, a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Both quotes above represent essential truths to the importance of open and transparent government. While our democracy is founded on the concept of checks and balances, an informed public serves as the ultimate check and balance against the government itself.

Yet, the public’s power can only exist if two conditions are met: 1) the public has access to information about the government and how it operates; 2) the public cares enough to protect its access and to remain informed.

To help meet the first condition, we are lucky to have initiatives like Sunshine Week, which is led by the American Society of News Editors. Visit www.sunshineweek.org for more information about this initiative and the importance of its mission. We are also lucky to have organizations like the Illinois Press Association (IPA), which works tirelessly to protect the First Amendment and access to information in our state.

While Sunshine Week and the IPA are media-focused, the reality is that their efforts are on behalf of the people, and not just the press. This is because the true power of the First Amendment and access to information is held by the public.

These rights should not be taken lightly, nor for granted. The entire basis of American independence—and later, of American Democracy—is that our rights are not granted by government, which implies those rights can also be taken away by government. Rather, our rights simply exist, and government is prohibited from intruding upon them.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
—U.S. Declaration of Independence

While our Founding Fathers articulated these rights as the foundation of our society, history has shown that even our government is not immune to a desire to limit our unalienable rights and freedoms. It is that very nature of our government that places so much importance on transparency and access to information, because it is the public’s access to public information that allows us to protect the rights our nation was founded upon.

We must remain focused on ensuring that our access is not limited or our speech restrained. The quote from our current president, Barack Obama, articulates the need for an engaged and aware public.

Yet, at the same time, a recent Associated Press review of federal access and transparency noted that denials of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests among the 17 major federal agencies has increased by 50 percent, as compared to the previous year. Furthermore, the total number of FOIA requests decreased.

What this means is, anyone can make a campaign pledge or say the right things in a speech, and anyone can say that their administration will be more transparent than the last; but the proof is in the action. The proof must exist in deed, and not just word. And because it is significantly easier to pledge transparency than it is to achieve it, the public must remain vigilant and aware of what they have access to today, as well as what they should gain access to tomorrow.

This is not just a federal issue. It is just as important to focus on local government.

Local governments do not experience a fraction of the scrutiny the federal government does, making it easier to—intentionally or not—erode the public’s access to information. Add to that the differences in Sunshine laws from state to state, and the overall system becomes exponentially more complex.

This combination of bureaucratic complexity and difficulty in turning words into deeds means that public scrutiny is what ultimately will preserve the rights that are endowed by our creator.