Let sun shine on government

Published 5:06 pm Friday, March 18, 2022

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In this, another annual observance of Sunshine Week, we’re reminded of the words of Bill Moyers — that “secrecy is the freedom tyrants dream of.”

Vladimir Putin regularly lives that dream in Russia, where journalists and, for that matter, anyone who questions the dictator’s authority are routinely snuffed out. Here at home, a country built on citizens’ right to know the affairs of their governments, secrecy is protected not by violence but by consistent, mostly subtle efforts to weaken open records and open meetings laws, or by simple disregard for the laws as written, knowing the consequences are minimal.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative begun in 2005 by the former American Society of News Editors, now the News Leaders Association, to coincide with the birth week of the philosophical Founding Father of sunshine laws, James Madison, who famously declared: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

It’s important to note that sunshine laws are not merely a tool for journalists. They are available to any citizen who wishes to know more about local, state and federal governments. Indeed, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act has been used extensively by critics of Isle of Wight County Schools’ equity and inclusion movement. Regardless of which side one takes in that pitched debate, no one should begrudge citizens’ use of transparency laws to learn more on an issue they are passionate about.

At their core, sunshine laws exist for the public’s benefit, the right of the citizenry to be informed transcends any public agency embarrassment or loss of “efficiency.”

As one state legislature put it, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know; the people insist on remaining informed so they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Sunshine laws secure the public trust and therefore must remain robust. When the public trust is broken, these laws are the best hope for holding public servants accountable.