Every year, it seems increasingly important to emphasize the goals and principles of Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide effort launched in 2005 to create and spread nationwide awareness about the importance of citizen access to what government is up to at all levels.
Access is a battle fought on many fronts, every day, from the federal government down to local water districts. It can be as simple and annoying as a small-town clerk refusing to hand over a public document, or as ominous as confronting an entire presidential administration devoted to lies, evasion and subterfuge of the democratic process. Government doesn’t always reveal its workings or intentions without an argument. From the White House, the daily refusals, denials and dishonesty now come with threats. Our fundamental freedoms have never been in more danger.
In Washington state, we recently witnessed a high-profile stare-down between a state Legislature that obstinately wants to exempt itself from the state’s public disclosure requirements and an angry public that demanded more, not less, transparency. In the case of the Legislature, there wasn’t even transparency about the process lawmakers used in attempting to further diminish transparency.
This time, the information withholders (your senators and representatives) blinked. Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto of the legislation, and a concurrent agreement to take an honest look at the Legislature’s obscuring tactics, at least offered a glimmer of hope that we can talk about secrecy out in the open. I want to believe that’s not an oxymoron.
Sunshine Week espouses high-minded principles with a practical imperative. On the organization’s website (sunshineweek.org), you can find learn about its goals: “Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why. Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger. Participants include news media, government officials at all levels, schools and universities, libraries and archives, individuals, nonprofit and civic organizations, historians and anyone with an interest in open government.
“Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors and is now coordinated in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, but freedom of information isn’t just a press issue. It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power.”
Those are great principles that any American citizen who understands both the strength and fragility of democracy should theoretically embrace. And I imagine most do. It’s in the practice of access and openness that the ideals are eroded steadily over time if the citizenry isn’t vigilant.
Traditional news media have always played a vital role in holding government accountable. The changing media landscape has made that role more difficult, not because it’s less desirable but because so many other information streams are overloading our senses and drowning out credible sources of information. He who shouts loudest and fastest often has the misinformation advantage.
That makes it even more crucial — while at the same time more challenging — for involved citizens to raise their voices and demand a responsive government. The recent example in Washington state demonstrates that it can work. A right that is not invoked, fought for and protected is a right that is likely to be lost. Hence my annual reminder: the “public” in public information is you. It doesn’t matter how much the media care if the citizens don’t.
Sunshine Week is a reminder, even a warning, of what it would be like to live in darkness. The world beyond our borders is full of instructive examples. We may end up like them if we don’t continue moving resolutely toward the light.