Let the sun shine ... let the sunshine in ....
Wednesday, 06 March 2013 13:06

by Steve Matrazzo

Whether intended or not, there are very good reasons the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the first amendment.
    Guarantees of freedom of the press, free speech and the right to petition the government are fundamental necessities to a free and democratic society — arguably as much so as the right to vote itself.
    In fact, what good is the right to vote if voters have no proper information — provided largely by the press — upon which to base their choices? No right to speak out on the issues and debate the options? No right to question their public officials and demand action?
    While it goes unmentioned in the First Amendment — or anywhere else in the Constitution — there is an underlying necessity that gives our First Amendment rights real meaning and power:
    Openness.
    Our republic, after all, is founded upon the idea that a legitimate government is the creature — and the servant — of its people.
   

When our leaders act, they do so in our name, under our authority.
    Most often, they do so in ways that involve spending our money. And in one way or another, everything they do affects our lives.
    The right of the people to have any real role in their own governance — to make their voices heard in elections and in the formation and execution of policy — has precious little meaning if those same people are denied the right to know what is being done in their name.
    That’s where the press comes in.
    We justly point to our free press as one of the hallmarks of our democracy, but how free is our press if it has the right to publish without censorship, but not the right to find out anything worth publishing?
    We see it all the time. Governments give plenty of reasons for withholding information — nebulous claims about “privacy” or “internal deliberations,” or the 800-pound gorilla, “national security.”
    Occasionally, such concerns may in fact be legitimate, but all too often, they are smokescreens designed to give public officials the ability to act in the shadows, to hide their misdeeds and embarrassments, and to abuse their power.
    As such, we in the press take the idea of open government very seriously.
    And right now, we’re devoting a week to promoting it.
    A group of press organizations including the American Society of News Editors (of which I am a member), the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bloomberg LP and the National Newspapeer Association (of which The Eagle is a member) is marking the 11th annual Sunshine Week from March 10-16.
    The name is taken from Louis Brandeis’ declaration — previously noted in this space ­— that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” [As I noted when I referred to the quote in December, it is more familiar in paraphrased form:  “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”]
    The week coincides with “Father of the Constitution” James Madison’s birthday and National Freedom of Information Day on March 16, and it will be marked by efforts great and small to speak up for the importance of openness in our public institutions.
    From a Sunshine Week press release:
    “Though created by journalists, 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.”
    As I noted in this space last month, “... the people are not merely the recipients of the results of government action, but are themselves essential elements of the process of government .... Democracy isn’t just about voting, and it isn’t just an exercise we go through every few years to provide the illusion that we have a voice in our own governance. It is a recognition that a government is, by rights, the creation of the people, and their servant. And as such, a democratic government owes its people full disclosure of what is being done in their name, and it owes them the chance to have their voices heard.”
    And it matters not just for moral reasons, but because, as recent events have proven right here in Dundalk, excluding the people from the governing process often results in poorly-made policy.
    We thus rightly demand that our leaders let the sunshine in.
    For more information about Sunshine Week, visit, www.sunshineweek.org.