Saturday Is Freedom Of Information Day

(Editorís note: The following is an op-ed piece about Freedom of Information Day, March 16, by Randy Brown, president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.)

By RANDY BROWN

Patrick Henry, the crusty old patriot, once said that liberty is never secure as long as government does business in secrecy.

OK, Iíve rewritten the thought for modern consumption, but the point is the same. The fight for open government goes on, more than 225 years after Henryís most famous moment, "Give me liberty or give me death," in 1775.

Saturday, March 16, is Freedom of Information Day, sponsored by the Freedom Forum and the American Library Association. Itís also the 250th anniversary of the birth of James Madison, our fourth president and a champion of the Bill of Rights and open government. So this is a good time for Kansans to pause and think for a minute or two about the grand cause of Henry, Madison and so many other patriots.

Frankly, itís a cause thatís struggling these days. The threat to open government comes not just from elected leaders who find it burdensome to do the publicís business in public or other government officials and employees who donít like the hassle of digging up public records. No, part of the threat, a key part, comes from citizens themselves, too many of whom believe open government is less about public rights and more about media privileges.

But, the fact is the law establishes that media members have no special privileges. The media have no more right to public meetings and records than do any other citizens. When the media push for open government ó along with library associations, educators and others concerned with the workings of a democratic society - they are pushing to be the eyes and ears of citizens.

Open government is the way members of a democracy can check to see if itís working properly. Itís the way citizens can see if their police departments, their courts, their city governments and their schools boards are doing their jobs.

The cause of open government in Kansas could go either way these days. In 2000, with effective leadership of the late Sen. Janice Hardenburger, R-Haddam, and Rep. Carlos Mayans, R-Wichita, the Kansas Legislature passed a wide-ranging reform of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA). Among other things, the reform established public information officers for all units of local government to make citizens aware of their rights and provided for the 40-plus exemptions to KORA to expire in 2005, unless lawmakers explicitly extend them.

But:

ó The movement to restore the exemptions, and perhaps to close more public records, already is under way.

ó Too many local officials still remain ignorant of, or hostile to, the rights of citizens to public records.

ó Attempts to further strengthen open government in Kansas are almost always met by powerful and well-organized opposition. Itís especially galling that the leaders of these closed-government efforts often are taxpayer-funded lobbyists from organizations such as the League of Municipalities, the Kansas Association of School Boards and the Kansas Association of Counties, as well as lobbyists from big cities such as Wichita. Itís a nasty irony: Taxpayers are paying for the fight against their rights.

The bottom line is that citizens have a major role in the open government movement. That includes me and you and our friends and neighbors. Hereís what we can do about it:

ó Tell elected officials and bureaucrats to do business in the open.

ó Get involved in local civic and governmental affairs.

Yes, many elected officials and government employees do a good and honest job of serving the public. But the fact remains: Open government is the key ingredient to a democratic society.

Some mushrooms may thrive in the dark, but our freedoms donít. They flourish in the sunshine.
 

Randy Brown, an assistant professor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University, is president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government. The coalition believes the most responsive and efficient government is accessible and open. Only through full and complete access to government records, meetings and public officials can citizens make intelligent, informed decisions about the direction of their government and the people they elect.

The Sunshine Coalition is open to all groups and individuals who believe that open government is a cornerstone of preserving representative government. It is a non-partisan collection of citizens concerned with open government at every level. Our members help keep the public informed of the abuses of open government and hold elected officials accountable for those actions that ignore the publicís legal right to truly public meetings and access to government records. The Sunshine Coalitionís hotline - (785) 233-3700 - is available to citizens seeking access to public meetings and records. For more information, visit www.sunshinecoalition.com.