Exemption 10

Sunshine Week: A commitment to open government

Posted: March 8, 2012 | Tags: Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week logo

Next week is Sunshine Week, designed to bring attention to the merits and benefits of having an open government. The main sponsors of the week are the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In some ways, it is bittersweet to have such a celebration. On the one hand, it is a great opportunity to expose people to the notion that a free flow of information from the government is vital to a functioning democracy. On the other hand, it seems too bad that we have to remind public officials and ordinary citizens of the importance of this idea.

In our view, every week ought to be Sunshine Week, or every day ought to be Sunshine Day.

So why call it “Sunshine Week?” The name derives from something Justice Louis Brandeis wrote nearly a hundred years ago:  “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The phrase might sound a bit quaint today, but Brandeis was writing at a time when clothing was regularly hung out to dry, so people understood what he meant.

But even Brandeis was of two minds. He also wrote the seminal article on privacy in the United States, when he said there should be a “right to be let alone.” (He didn’t like the newspaper coverage of his wife’s social activities in Boston.)

Sunshine Week, which was first observed in 2005, falls around the time of President James Madison’s birthday each year. Madison is regarded as the father of open government. He wrote that the “consent of the governed” requires that the people be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Groups interested in open government and Freedom of Information are holding events around the nation .

In Washington, the National Archives is displaying the original Freedom of Information Act, which was signed into law in July 1966 after more than a decade of Congressional wrangling.

President Lyndon Johnson nearly vetoed the bill, which many government agencies and officials strongly opposed. You can see Johnson’s thinking in the edits he made to the bill signing statement posted by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The statement is hardly a ringing endorsement of the idea of open government. Among other things, he took out a sentence that says, “Good government functions best in the full light of day.” So much for Mr. Justice Brandeis.

As part of the commemoration, I (@wcochran) will be participating in a Twitter chat on Tuesday, March 13, from 2 to 3 p.m., along with several others. The hashtag for the chat will be #ASNEchat.

Update on FOIA annual reports

Federal law says each agency covered by FOIA is supposed to file an annual report online by Feb. 1. Not all agencies meet that deadline.

As of today, just 12 of the 15 Cabinet-level agencies had filed their reports, according to the Justice Deparment. Still missing: Education, Housing and Urban Development and Treasury.

Maybe they are going to file the reports as their Sunshine Week observance. Or not.

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Since 1996 the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has offered a free letter-generating service to provide users with the correct language and structure for FOIA requests. Over the past year the committee looked for ways to expand this tool to better serve reporters. In recognition of the fact that a single investigation can require hundreds of FOIA requests, they sought to make it easier for journalists to track and organize records requests.

“Reporters are always trying to remember where they’ve submitted requests, how much time has passed since they made the request and who they need to follow up with,” said Emily Grannis of the new ifOIA website.

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