Make secrecy the exception

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In honor of National Sunshine Week, we are publishing a guest editorial this week provided by the American Society of Newspaper Editors

"Sunshine is the best disinfectant." - Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

The esteemed Justice Brandeis was ahead of his time. His observation fits exceptionally well with national Sunshine Week, which is commemorated this week. The annual event, launched in 2005, champions and celebrates openness in government.

We can only be fully informed citizens and participants in democracy when we're tuned in to what's going on within government at all levels. Involved citizens ensure that their government works most effectively toward the common good.

Open government, with its inner workings transparent and accessible to all, is and should forever be part of the bedrock core of this republic's centuries-old experiment with representative government. Government conducted before the people is essential to maintaining and safeguarding the freedoms and liberty that we all cherish.

This nation's journalists, ever mindful of the First Amendment's protection of the press, have been understandably champions of Sunshine Week.

Thanks to Georgia's Open Records Act, for example, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) unearthed suspicious scores on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. That led to a large-scale state investigation of testing. Other open records requests by the AJC led to reports on costly squandering of taxpayer money and questionable financial dealings by public officials.

Yet we also recognize there are instances when lawful access to records conflict with personal privacy. Such a case arose last week when a writer for Hustler magazine requested crime-scene photos of Meredith Emerson's brutal death at the hands of her convicted murderer, Gary Michael Hilton.

While examining crime-scene photos can help a reporter -- or a juror -- understand the evidence of the crime, there is and can be no news value to publishing or reproducing explicit photos of Emerson. Technology changes will require careful thinking of how to make sure our society and government remain open while preventing the very occasional gross misuse of public information.

Access to open records is not just a concern for journalists. Private citizens are also active in exercising their right to open government.

According to the American Society of News Editors, which leads the week's efforts, "Participants include . . . civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know."

Securing a widespread base of support for governmental transparency is necessary in order to keep the light of public inquiry focused on halls of power.

ASNE says, "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."

Keeping governance before the public eye has always been important, but never more important than during this present, perilous time for the United States and the world.

Yes, certain government business should be conducted outside of public earshot. Secrecy should be the rare exception, rather than the rule.

To do otherwise is to tempt Americans with a false sense of security and well-being as our challenges and troubles are kept secreted away from public scrutiny.

True security, freedom and well-being comes from a rich and public debate and governmental processes that keep the people's business before the people.

Andre Jackson is a member of the Atlanta Forward's Editorial Board.