Sunshine Week clouds
The Obama administration wants an entire new category of government information placed off limits from citizen review under the Freedom of Information Act.
A California police chief sent an armed police sergeant to a news reporter’s home after midnight last week to demand changes in an upcoming news article.
Closer to home, the Colorado House has passed a bill that would make it easier for public officals to withhold information related to civil or administrative investigations of state and local government officials.
These events share several things. First, they represent the continuing efforts of authorities — at all levels of government — to infringe on the public’s right to know.
Second, we know about all of them because of the free press. Unlike so many countries, authorities here can’t simply order information to be kept secret or quash news stories. Vibrant print and broadcast media — even citizens working on the Internet — keep pressure on government to be transparent.
This is Sunshine Week, a time when news organizations and open-government advocates celebrate the protections we have in place to promote open government, and note the efforts by too many people to cloak what should be transparent.
As a candidate, Barack Obama promised his administration would be the most transparent in history. But even many of his staunchest media supporters have noted his failure to honor that pledge. This week, a top Justice Department official urged senators to block disclosures of documents on csybersecurity, government computers, industrial plants, pipelines and more.
But there are plenty of rules to allow exemptions to open records on a case-by-case basis when national security is an issue. There is no good reason for making entire categories of public records off limits for public inspection.
In Berkeley, Calif., Police Chief Michael Meehan said he was only trying to prevent inaccurate information from being published when he sent a sergeant to reporter Doug Oakley’s home at 12:45 a.m. last Friday. The chief demanded changes in Oakley’s article — already online — about a local murder, public outcry over the police department’s slow response to the murder, and the chief’s response to the public outcry.
Meehan later apologized, saying he had been “overzealous.” Really? Others viewed his action as intentionally intimidating and a “despicable” attempt to censor the press.
In Colorado, House Bill 1036 has been touted as a measure to protect public officials who are merely accused of wrongdoing. But an attorney for the Colorado Press Association told The Denver Post it could be used to keep secret non-criminal reports about investigations of public officials’ behavior that leads to their firing. Even the release of autopsy reports could be threatened, the attorney said.
It’s not just journalists, but citizens who have a stake in knowing what their government is doing, and why. While there is much to celebrate about government transparency in this country, the events listed above make it clear that vigilance will always be necessary because there will always be powerful people who want to keep vital information secret.