I never get tired of quoting James Madison’s line that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.”
This quote is at the heart of what the “American Experiment” achieved when we established self-governance with our new Republic 230 years ago, after millennia of almost entirely autocratic rule throughout the history of human civilization.
The late columnist Molly Ivins noted that “it is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.”
I believe that all of the progress in that struggle, past and future, is dependent on the American people being armed with the power which knowledge gives.
For the people to take up the arms of knowledge, nothing is more central than effective, forthright, and honest back-and-forth communication between the people and their representative leadership. Nothing is more detrimental to a well-informed population than a government that shuts its doors and turns out its lights. It is the dark path to tyranny.
After 15 years in journalism, I’ve seen nearly endless examples at all levels of government of the important role Sunshine Laws play for the Fourth Estate – the eyes and ears of the people – as watchdogs of democracy.
So it comes as a terrible shock and fills me with fear and loathing to see concerted efforts to draw the shades over the functioning of governance, to see our elected representatives strive to operate in the dark, unaccountable, without explanation.
The Associated Press reported Monday that governments across these United States are suing those who seek public records.
Government bodies are increasingly turning the tables on citizens who seek public records that might be embarrassing or legally sensitive. Instead of granting or denying their requests, a growing number of school districts, municipalities and state agencies have filed lawsuits against people making the requests — taxpayers, government watchdogs and journalists who must then pursue the records in court at their own expense.
The lawsuits generally ask judges to rule that the records being sought do not have to be divulged. They name the requesters as defendants but do not seek damage awards. Still, the recent trend has alarmed freedom-of-information advocates, who say it’s becoming a new way for governments to hide information, delay disclosure and intimidate critics.
“This practice essentially says to a records requester, ‘File a request at your peril,’” said University of Kansas journalism professor Jonathan Peters, who wrote about the issue for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015, before several more cases were filed. “These lawsuits are an absurd practice and noxious to open government.”
As though that wasn’t disturbing enough, the Columbus Dispatch hit me with a report about Ohio itself, and Buckeye State lawmakers chipping away at public records access.
Ohio has a solid public records law compared with many states, said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association.
And the state largely has avoided some of the more-draconian efforts to restrict access to records, as seen in other states, amid fears of identity theft and concerns about privacy, he said.
But the ongoing legislative mindset favoring secrecy over transparency is like death by a thousand paper cuts, Hetzel said.
“Most of the time, what we are seeing are generally well-intentioned efforts to carve out new, sometimes small, new exemptions. But, in the aggregate, it is increasingly hard to manage a law with an ever-growing list of exemptions,” Hetzel said.
The Dispatch further tied the fight over access to public records to the Pike County murders of 2016 in an editorial about an ongoing lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court by the Dispatch against the Pike County coroner’s office regarding that case.
The Dispatch’s fight to obtain these records isn’t about publishing sensational details. The paper has been measured in its reporting. There’s a precedent at stake. Access to public records is vital. It allows citizens to see what the government is doing. In this case, it might even reveal a killer.
We fight on. We expect better. Justice has not been served.
That’s one small example. All living journalists together could provide, literally, hundreds of thousands of others. We face it all the time. We push and prod and pry information from government – we fight for it, hard, every day – because the people have the right to know, because everything that’s being done is being done in our name.
Sunshine in self-governance is sacred; it is fundamental. And without it, The Washington Post is correct, Democracy Dies in Darkness.
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