The middle of March is something many of us look forward to, because it means spring is just around the corner. But this coming week, March 12-18, is known as Sunshine Week. Associations, institutions and organizations connected to journalism will celebrate the initiative to promote open government, which was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, now the News Leaders Association.
The week coincides with March 16, National Freedom of Information Day, which honors a bill signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, allowing members of the public and journalists access to government information in the interest of keeping our leadership transparent.
States across the country have since enacted similar laws, but why is this important? Why should you care?
Because government information is taxpayer-supported, public information, and it belongs to you. Whether it’s a public school district, a village, a town, a county, the state, or the nation’s highest governing entities, everything said, spent or done there impacts you.
In the midst of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union locking political horns after World War II, the American government appeared to be suppressing information. That wasn’t going to work for John Moss, a newly elected Republican congressman from California. Moss campaigned for increased transparency, but was continuously rebuffed by a government he viewed as acting secretly. People were fired from their jobs and blacklisted for being communists, many without a shred of real evidence.
Moss championed his caused by hosting hearings as chair of a House subcommittee on government information. Support was nonexistent from the majority GOP, but outside Congress, educators, journalists and scientists strongly supported Moss.
Not surrendering, Moss pushed his Freedom of Information Act for over 10 years until, finally, a fellow Republican, Donald Rumsfeld — then a young representative from Chicago — added his name. The act eventually passed in the House and the Senate, and then landed on the desk of Johnson, a Democrat who opposed some aspects of the bill, especially when it came to classified material. Still, LBJ signed the legislation into law on July 4, 1966, making the supposed greatest democracy on Earth the third country to create such a law.
“I sign this measure with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded,” Johnson said.
You might live in an incorporated village with a government that includes a board of trustees. You might attend a board meeting at which those trustees vote to spend money to improve a playground. You want to know exactly how that money — your village taxes — will be spent.
You might ask a trustee. Maybe he or she answers your question. Maybe they do not. You want to know more. That is when you can file a Freedom of Information request — the process created by the Freedom of Information Act — to obtain that information.
Is it that easy? Usually, yes. Occasionally, however, it becomes a tug-of-war between the government and the party who “FOILs” for the information.
This is what Sunshine Week is about, and why it matters. The information that a government entity possesses does not belong to elected or appointed officials. It belongs to the people they represent.
To promote the message of Sunshine Week, you can write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper — like this one — or help spread the message through social media.
Elected officials, doing their part, could review current public-access laws, introduce legislation to strengthen accessibility to public information, and encourage the training of government employees to help ensure compliance with existing open-record laws.
Grass-roots community organization might organize local forums, sponsor essay contests, or push elected representatives to spotlight the importance of open access to government information.
Teachers can use Sunshine Week to educate students on how government transparency improves their lives and creates stronger communities.
Government transparency was on the mind of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis when he told Harper’s Weekly in 1913 that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Increased openness should be the standard that all government entities strive for. It makes for good governance, and a strong and civil society.