OPINION: Media, public share watchdog roles
The caller on the other end of the phone line was near exacerbation. He had been given the run-around by government officials, the very people he put in office to represent him, and his quest for answers was met time and again with roadblocks.
I don't recall the specifics of the man's concern, or the public officials who he was trying to spur to action in a cause he passionately believed in that he related in the conversation years ago. But one thing that he said has stuck with me, and it is something that I go back to time and again whenever someone calls with similar concerns.
He told me that the paper needed to pursue getting the records that he sought and had been denied. "They have to give it to you," he said. "You're the newspaper."
I told him that government agencies did not have to comply with record requests simply because they came from a newspaper, or any medium. We have no special right to access. In fact, public records laws, and well as open meetings laws, are in place to guarantee that any citizen has access to information concerning how their government is doing business.
The press, over the years, has embraced its role as the Fourth Estate. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press, which means that it will not be run by the government, and professional journalists across the country have made careers out of serving as community watchdogs over what their government is doing. But beyond the protections offered by the First Amendment that say the government cannot control the media, we operate under the same rules and utilize the same tools as are available to any average citizen.
Today marks the start of Sunshine Week. Sunshine Sunday was launched in 2002 by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors after the state legislature that year tried to create scores of exemptions to the existing open government laws. Because of the increased publicity, most of those measures failed.
Today, the American Society of News Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other organizations, along with help the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Bloomberg LP, continue to promote open government through Sunshine Week.
According to the Sunshine Week website, "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."
To play that active role, people need to keep watch on their elected or appointed officials to ensure that they are operating in the best interest of the community. But it isn't always easy.
At all levels of government are officials bent on locking the public out of the governmental process. They do this by holding secret meetings or illegally going into closed sessions when the topics they are discussing rightfully should be discussed in open meetings. They do it by discussing issues via email exchanges, or by making major decisions through similar private exchanges that deny the public access to their deliberative process. And they seek to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to track what they are doing by delaying or outright denying public records requests for information that, by law, citizens have a right to.
The traditional role of newspapers and other types of media as leaders in the charge for open government is evolving with advances in technology. As an example, a review of the cases in which the Maryland's Open Meetings Compliance Board issued opinions in the last fiscal year show an overwhelming majority were complaints filed by groups or individuals not associated with any media outlet.
Major media outlets still have an advantage in being able to spread the word when elected officials act outside the parameters of open records or open meetings laws, but more and more often word of wrongdoing is spread by citizens through their own social media outlets, such as Facebook or Twitter.
Social media outlets can also bring people with common interests together more quickly then might have been possible in the past, shining a brighter light on officials' attempts at secrecy and spurring communities to action.
Increasingly, citizen activists are taking an interest in and learning about their state's open records and open government laws. They are fighting attempts by governments to close off access to records or hold secret meetings, and they are demanding a higher degree of accountability from elected officials.
Overseeing government at all levels is not a press right, it is a right of every citizen. And the more citizens exercise that right, the better our government will become.
Jim Lee is editor of the Carroll County Times in Maryland.