During his time as U.S. minister to France, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a statesman from Virginia about the importance of a free press to our nation.
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right,” Jefferson, one of our Founding Fathers, wrote in 1787. “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
In 1914, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote this: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants ...”
We remind you of those words today because this is Sunshine Week, an annual campaign to highlight Americans’ right to know what their elected officials are doing and how their tax dollars are being spent.
This is important, because our system of government is designed to utilize public participation, by voting officials in and out of office, attending meetings and hearings and petitioning our government for certain actions. That means meetings and records of official government actions must be open to the public.
In Texas as in Pennsylvania, open government ideals are enshrined in open meetings act . . . All government bodies must reach their decisions in meetings. Those meetings must be open to the public, and announced in advance so residents can attend. The actions at those meetings also must be documented, in minutes and recordings, available for anyone to review.
Even if you don’t have time to attend the meetings or read the minutes, the law guarantees access so various watchdogs — journalists, advocates for causes, neighborhood leaders and so forth — can keep you informed and help hold elected officials accountable . . .
Government officials and offices often put up roadblocks ranging from outright denial to unreasonable fees for providing public information. Here in East Texas, it has become common practice for officials to delay releasing public information by asking for an opinion from the attorney general’s office. This newspaper routinely challenges such attempts to hide public information, but many individuals facing roadblocks probably throw up their hands and walk away, thinking the battle is not worth the trouble.
But it is worth it, and that is why media outlets across the nation this week are highlighting the importance of sunshine. It is a reminder that government transparency and the public’s right to know are foundational tenets of a fair and functioning democracy. As such, they must be insisted upon, spurred on and fought for — this week and every week.