Forecast for open government: Sunny, for now

So it’s Sunshine Week. Are you excited?

I can hear most of you asking: “What the heck does that even mean? Are we celebrating the sun this week? What kind of hippie-dippie deal is this? Will I be wearing clothes?”

Sigh ...

It’s very hard to tell someone they should care about something and then get them to listen to why. But, well, you should care about this. And here’s why ...

Basically, a few hundred years ago – and you’ll still see this today in very backward-thinking countries such as, say, Russia – governments used to rule over people and keep them in the dark.

Citizens would say, for instance, “Where’s the proof that Galileo’s a heretic,” or “Show us the budget for the Notre Dame Cathedral.” Governments would scoff and tell citizens to get lost. “We rule!” they would say, and that was that.

Then a bunch of enlightened colonists in the New World decided they didn’t like the way things were being run. They decided to create a new way of governing and wrote a constitution. This happened in the late 18th century. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Anyway, along with the constitution, these colonists wrote a few amendments basically spelling out folks’ rights. One of those amendments, the first, says this: “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ... ”

So it’s become the law of the land that U.S. citizens are allowed access to meetings and official papers and such. The idea was that citizens shouldn’t be kept in the dark. Nope, things should be out in the sunshine, for everyone to see.

James Madison said this:

“(A) popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

He didn’t actually speak that, but he wrote it in an 1822 letter to some guy named William T. Barry, whom you’ve never heard of. In the olden days, people used to write letters to each other. Isn’t that funny?

You may be wondering why James Madison is so important in all this. Fair question, but let’s start by answering who James Madison was, so you don’t have to ask what could be an embarrassing question.

Madison was our fourth president. Those of you with long memories will recall that was 1809-17, well before Reagan. Madison’s wife’s name was Dolley, but that’s not really important – just trying to keep you awake. The main thing you want to know is he helped write those amendments to the Constitution.

Madison was born March 16, 1751. He turned 263 on Sunday. History books say he died in 1836, but history books say a lot of things.

The point is, every year on March 16 – while Madison’s blowing out all those candles – we journalists and First Amendment fans and open-records geeks of all types get excited and announce that it’s Sunshine Week! And we hope that people pay attention because it really is important.

The First Amendment is the genesis of sunshine laws, which require openness in government meetings and records. The country has a sunshine law, as does Colorado.

Steven Zansberg, a Denver-based lawyer whose area of expertise includes the First Amendment, explains that it’s freedom of speech, not freedom of the press, that makes those laws shine. Zansberg, who recently was named president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, says freedom of speech is not only about speaking, but also receiving information – and, in particular, receiving information from the government. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have affirmed this.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has said as well that discussion of public business and of government is not only a right, but it’s a duty,” Zansberg says. “It’s what we as citizens have to do to keep our democracy functioning. We simply can’t do it without adequate access to information.”

And to that end, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition was formed in 1987. The 16-member board is heavily weighted with journalists, but other civic activists are involved as well. (Full disclosure: Don Lindley, editor of the Herald, is a board member.) The coalition in July took a big step, hiring former Denver Post reporter/editor Jeff Roberts as its first executive director.

Whether it’s a journalist retrieving an official document or a private citizen challenging a city council that goes into a secret session with no clear reason, someone needs to stand up and keep government officials honest. If not, we turn into Russia, and guys like Vladimir Putin start telling us how to vote.

“It really doesn’t matter what your politics are,” Roberts says. “You still need to know that stuff. So everybody theoretically would care about making sure government is as transparent as possible.”

The Colorado Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in a 1983 decision about whether legislative caucus meetings should be subject to the Colorado Open Meetings Law. Yes, it decided, and sounded rather Madisonesque in its ruling:

“A free self-governing people needs full information concerning the activities of its government not only to shape its views of policy and to vote intelligently in elections, but also to compel the state, the agent of the people, to act responsibly and account for its actions.”

Sunshine Week is about freedom. On the surface, it’s about freedom of information. But really, it’s about protecting a free society in which we govern ourselves and are not ruled by others.

Keep your clothes on or take them off this week as you see fit. In either case, enjoy the “sunshine.” The forecast in many places, such as, say, Russia, is not so bright.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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