There is no telling whether the weather will live up to the name, but today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week. Rather than serving as a reference to our meteorological side, the annual observation highlights the importance of open government and celebrates the free flow of information.
As if we needed a reminder of the role such things play in a democracy, Washington legislators recently provided one. When lawmakers passed a bill to exempt themselves from provisions in the state’s public-disclosure law, the public took note. Newspapers decried the action, and nearly 20,000 citizens contacted the office of Gov. Jay Inslee to express opposition. The governor vetoed the bill, and lawmakers agreed to work with media outlets to devise a solution.
The issue provided a miniature civics lesson for Washington residents and brought to the forefront the necessity of an informed public. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “No one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do, and none has greater confidence in its effect towards supporting free and good government.”
Washington residents long have worked toward that spread of information regarding the actions of their government. In 1971, the Legislature passed a law defining “public records,” and in 1972 voters overwhelmingly approved the Public Records Act. The impetus is a belief that in order for the people to hold their government accountable — often with assistance from the media — they must have access to what that government is doing behind the scenes.
This is particularly important in an era when the president frequently chides the media and has called a free press “the enemy of the American people.” Such exhortations are anathema to the notion of democracy. There is a reason, after all, that the Founding Fathers codified “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of free speech, or of the press.” There is a reason they included it in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
As Mizell Stewart III wrote last year for USA Today: “Now, more than ever, Americans are urged to recognize the importance of open government to a robust democracy. Access to meetings, minutes and records of our elected and appointed representatives — and to those officials themselves — is a key element of the constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. It is not strictly for the benefit of the news media.”
Instead, it is for the benefit of the public, and it is crucial to holding accountable officials ranging from local school boards to the President of the United States. For example, if a legislator is considering a bill regarding gun control, the public has a right to know if that lawmaker is meeting with gun-rights activists — or gun-control activists. If a lawmaker is considering school funding, the public should know if its representative is exchanging emails with representatives of teachers’ unions — or anti-union activists.
That is the crux of Sunshine Week, and it lies at the heart of open government. Each day, The Columbian and other news outlets serve as a conduit between the government and the people, providing information as mundane as birth announcements or as essential as how government is spending tax money. In the process, the media allows the public to make informed decisions about their governance.
And, so, we celebrate Sunshine Week. We celebrate a system that recognizes the importance of an informed populace, and we remember the adage that sunshine is the best disinfectant.