It’s March and it’s Sunshine Week. This year, from March 16 - 22, the American Society of Newspaper Editors is holding its annual national initiative to raise public consciousness on the need for open government. The name “Sunshine Week” is derived from the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s admonition that “[s]unlight is the best disinfectant,” describing his belief that an open government is more accountable to its people and thus less easily corrupted. As I write this post, various participants in the media community are similarly calling attention to the public’s right to know what their government is doing and why in order to improve their lives and better inform their communities. (See the Student Press Law Center, the Massachusetts Newspapers Publishers Association, and the Society for Professional Journalists for examples.)
Using freedom of information laws is a simple, and potentially powerful, way of obtaining information about the activities of federal, state and many local governments. You don't need to hire a lawyer, and no complicated forms are involved—requests can be made in a simple letter. And you don't need to be a journalist to share what you find with others who are interested in these issues; with nothing more than an Internet connection, you can post the information and make it available to anyone in the world.
Your request can yield information that has a real impact on your community. For example, in 2003, a parent of a student in Texas, Dianna Pharr, spurred by the financial crisis in her local school district, began filing multiple requests under the Texas Public Information Act to investigate the district's spending and operations. She and other parent volunteers established an online repository for the documents she received and made them available on a local community website, Keep Eanes Informed. Pharr's efforts received coverage in the local press, and have enabled her community to make informed decisions when dealing with school board proposals. Similarly, in 2006, the nonprofit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility used the federal Freedom of Information Act to get documents that revealed that genetically-modified crops had been sown on thousands of acres in a federal wildlife refuge. A coalition of nonprofits used this information to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating federal environmental law. For other examples of the benefits of sunshine laws, see the National Security Archive's 40 Noteworthy Headlines Made Possible by FOIA, 2004-2006.
Unfortunately, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the government has whittled away at the public’s access to government information in the name of security. According to the Associated Press, legislatures around the country have passed more than 600 laws restricting public access to government information. As a result, you cannot access a variety of information such as the safety plan at your child’s school in Iowa, medication errors at your grandparent’s nursing home in North Carolina, or disciplinary actions against state employees in Indiana.
These access restrictions highlight the importance of Sunshine Week and its focus on the need for the public to resist the current trend of secrecy and direct legislative efforts towards a presumption of openness. For our part, we at the CMLP intend to spread some sunshine by publishing the next section of our Legal Guide on Access to Government Information at the end of this month. The guide will not only include information on federal and state freedom of information laws, but also information on how to access government meetings, the courts, and Congress.