Sunday, March 11, marks the first day of Sunshine Week 2018. Each year since 2005, when the week-long event was inaugurated by the American Society of News Editors, the media, government watchdogs and ordinary citizens have celebrated the importance and impact of open government.
The celebration takes various forms across the country — including newspaper editorials and articles, open government compliance audits, online webinars, meetings with elected officials and public forums — all aimed at promoting broader understanding of, and appreciation for, federal and state laws securing the public’s right to know what its government is up to.
The event’s timing was not randomly selected. Instead, it was chosen to coincide with the birth week of the philosophical Founding Father of sunshine laws, James Madison.
It was 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 has been convincingly argued that Madison was not commenting on the importance of access to government information, but instead on the importance of access to public education. And not just public education generally, but public education in Kentucky!
But thanks to the revival of the quotation in the congressional debates preceding the enactment of the federal Freedom of Information Act in 1965 – signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1966 — and its invocation by Justice Douglas in his dissent in the 1973 United States Supreme Court case construing the act – EPA v. Mink – the quotation is regularly co-opted by open government advocates as a rallying cry.
And happily so.
Madison’s words import one singular thought: secrecy in government violates the public good.
Laws enshrining this principle, and affording citizens a means of enforcing their right to know, must be jealously guarded and rigorously enforced.
Kentucky’s open meetings and open records laws — enacted in 1974 and 1976, respectively – are premised on legislative policy statements recognizing that “the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret” and that “free and open examination of public records is in the public’s interest.”
On March 1, the Bluegrass Institute’s Center for Open Government celebrated its one year anniversary. Since that date we have published a report proposing needed revisions to Kentucky’s open meetings and open records laws, frequently blogged on developments in the laws, twice engaged in ongoing litigation aimed at enforcing the laws, and – most recently – combatted proposed legislation that would restrict the laws. Additionally, we have provided training to various constituencies; responded to inquiries from citizens, public officials, and the media; offered guidance in formulating open records requests and open meetings complaints; and expanded Kentucky’s presence in the national open government arena by participating in national coalitions and their listservs.
The Center for Open Government will commemorate Sunshine Week in a series of articles focusing on the citizen as open government advocate and how he or she can utilize the law to maximum advantage.
The first of these articles will focus on average citizens who made significant contributions to the development of the laws. Subsequent articles will focus on how every citizen can employ the laws most effectively to advance the public’s right to know.
We undertake this initiative in celebration of Sunshine Week, 2018, and — once again — as a means of furthering the Bluegrass Institute’s longstanding commitment to promoting the goal of open, transparent and accountable government.