Keeping public information public

March 16, 2009

by Ivan Raconteur

March 15-19 is Sunshine Week, and this is the kind of sunshine that we can all use more of.

Sunshine week is a celebration of the public’s right to know what the government is up to, and (sometimes more importantly) why our representatives do what they do.

This is not to suggest that elected officials cannot be trusted. No doubt some can be, but why leave it up to chance?

Human nature is so arranged that some people find it easier to do the right thing when they know someone is watching them.

Exercising our right to know is a good way to make it easier for our elected officials to do the right thing.

We are fortunate in this country to have things like the Freedom of Information Act, the Open Government Act, and open meeting laws in place to help protect our right to know.

People in many places in the world are not nearly so lucky. Their governments are run by dictators or by small groups of people who are looking out for their own interests, not those of the citizens.

Freedom of information is crucial to maintaining our freedom, and yet we often take it for granted.

Even though we have laws to protect freedom of information, it is something we constantly need to fight for.

The problem is that there are always people trying to limit this freedom.

It doesn’t matter what their reasons are for doing so. The point is, we can’t allow it to happen.

The purpose of the “sunshine laws” is to ensure that government decisions are made in the light of day, that is to say, in public, where citizens can observe and even participate in the process.

The laws seek to prevent officials from making decisions privately, in smoky back rooms without any oversight.

Governmental bodies still try to get around the system.

They may try to conduct secret ballots when making controversial decisions, or discuss things in private before taking action in public.

In some instances, especially at the local level, this may not be an indication of evil intentions, but rather, it may be because some elected officials in small towns are uncomfortable taking positions on sensitive issues that may cause friction with their neighbors.

Making difficult decisions is part of holding public office, and in any event, we can’t allow them to use this as an excuse to block out the sunshine.

Freedom of information is constantly under fire from all sides.

Earlier this year, the St. Louis County Board asked the county attorney to investigate the legality of banning private citizens from recording county board workshops.

The request followed an incident in which the group, “We Are Watching,” posted audio of the meeting on its web site.

Fortunately, St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford advised the board not to attempt to ban recording of meetings.

In Minnesota, since 1972 we have been guided by a state attorney general’s opinion stating that boards, councils, and other public bodies must allow citizens and the media to record any public meeting as long as it doesn’t interfere with the meeting.

This is extremely important, since people sometimes have difficulty remembering what they said, or try to deny having made statements that turn out to be unpopular or embarrassing.

This can be especially true if they say stupid things.

Believe it or not, politicians are not immune to saying stupid things.

One way in which government has tried to limit public information is by invoking claims that limits are necessary in the interest of national security.

It is dangerous to use fear as a tool to limit freedom, and it would be wise to be suspicious of any attempt on the part of government to do so.

Technology can also be an enemy of transparency.

Recently, concerns have been raised about elected officials using e-mail to conduct business.

In some cases, politicians have used private e-mails to conduct public business.

Concerns have also been raised about members of boards or councils communicating by e-mail in order to avoid having to discuss controversial issues during a public meeting.

As we celebrate Freedom of Information Day and Sunshine Week, we should be proud to live in a country that honors these principles. At the same time, we should remember that freedom of information, like any other freedom, has a price and must be defended.