Open government advocates, media, public celebrate Sunshine Week in the United States

22 March 2006

During the week of March 12-18, the second annual Sunshine Week was observed in the United States, focusing national attention on the need for more open government and access to information. Sunshine Week was first celebrated in March 2005, when journalism groups, media companies, freedom of information and civil liberties advocates, librarians, civic groups, educators, and student journalists came together to pay tribute to the importance of open government in a healthy democratic society. Last year, more than 730 organizations and news outlets participated, printing thousands of articles in newspapers, magazines, and online publications, and airing hundreds of radio and television broadcasts and public forums focused on why open government is important to everyone, not just journalists. Sunshine Week 2006 was even bigger and better.

Sunshine Week was modeled after Sunshine Sunday, which was first observed in Florida in 2002. The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors (FSNE) developed Sunshine Sunday in direct response to moves by the state legislature to severely restrict public access to information after the September 11 terrorist attacks. For the first Sunshine Sunday, newspapers across the state ran news stories, editorials, columns, and cartoons highlighting the importance of open government and seeking to preserve Florida’s reputation as the nation’s leader in open government laws. In November of 2002, Floridians voting resoundingly in favor of a referendum to strengthen the state’s Sunshine Law, making it more difficult for the legislature to create new exemptions to the Constitutional right of public access. Participation in the event has since grown exponentially, and the impact has been tremendous: a group of Florida lawmakers publicly committed to promoting open government and FSNE estimates that as many as 300 new exemptions to Florida’s open government laws have been defeated in legislative sessions, largely because of the heightened public awareness generated by Sunshine Sunday publications and events.

Since the September 11 attacks, government secrecy in the United States has increased dramatically. Although the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other open government laws have been on the books for nearly 40 years, members of the public and private organizations continue to struggle to gain access to records and proceedings that the government has sought to conceal for a variety of reasons, from avoiding embarrassment and exposing misdeeds to protecting national security. In 2004, there were more than 15.6 million classification decisions, compared to 8.7 million decisions that took place in 2001. During that period, the number of pages that were declassified annually fell from about 100 million to 28.4 million.

Sunshine Week participants seek to draw attention to the dangers of excessive secrecy, and to mobilize the public to demand the access to their government that they rightly deserve in a democratic society. "Sunshine Week is about reaffirming the basic American belief that government belongs to the people and there is no such thing as government information," says Hodding Carter III, Honorary Chairman of Sunshine Week 2006, "It is the people’s information." (Bob Dart, ‘There’s No Such Thing As Government Information’, Cox News Service, February 3, 2006)

2006 events included:
National FOIA Day Conference (March 16, 2006) – This annual conference, sponsored by the First Amendment Center, the American Library Association, and Sunshine Week, brought together open-government advocates, government officials, lawyers, librarians, journalists, educators to discuss the latest issues and developments in freedom of information.

The day began with a keynote address by Hodding Carter III, former CEO of the Knight Foundation and chief State Department spokesman from 1977-1980. Carter spoke forcefully about the duties to the public of open government advocates and journalists: “Freedom. Liberty. Self-government. Accountability. Transparency. The Constitution. People died for those words. Wars were fought because of those words. History was made by those words. And we are too sophisticated to invoke them, to demand them? … What has happened to our capacity for outrage? … Where are our refuseniks to say no to a government determined to shackle the people’s right to know the raw materials of freedom?”

Panel discussions focused on "FOIA’s Past, Present, and Future" and "Whistleblowers: Patriots or Traitors?" Twenty-one prominent open-government activists were inducted into the 2006 class of the National FOIA Hall of Fame and the American Library Association’s 16th annual James Madison Award for champions of the public’s right to know was presented to Steven Aftergood of the Federal of American Scientists.

"Are We Safer in the Dark?" Teleforum (March 13, 2006) – A panel of experts from around the country hosted a lively discussion from Washington, DC about open government and secrecy-the problems, the impact on communities, and what the public can do. The panel discussion will link via satellite to locally hosted discussions in communities across the country.

‘NOW’ Newsmagazine on PBS, Special Broadcast: "The Sunshine Gang" (March 17, 2006) – This one-hour special focused on government secrecy, highlighting the erosion of open government in America through the stories of whistleblowers who have risked it all for democracy by telling the truth about the government from the inside.

Congressional oversight hearing: Government policies on sensitive information, House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations (March 14, 2006). Witnesses from government agencies and private organizations discussed classification practices and strategies to prevent overuse of classification and other information restrictions. Rep. Christopher Shays (CT-4), Chairman, arranged this important hearing to coincide with Sunshine Week. Shays stated: "We’re spending a great deal of time and money hiding information from ourselves. Policies and procedures on classification, declassification, reclassification and designation of ‘sensitive but unclassified’ material have run amok. The Cold War intelligence machinery churns on, impervious to post-9/11 realities, and we’re literally drowning in faux secrets." The National Security Archive also released two reports to coincide with this hearing:

The League of Women Voters hosted 14 local Openness in Government forums and has also developed Looking for Sunshine: Protecting Your Right to Know, a resource guide for all chapters planning local Sunshine Week events.

National survey on public perception of open government issues will be conducted by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

SUNSHINE WEEK LINKS

Sunshine Week

Bright Ideas for Sunshine Week 2006 [online book]
72-page, full-color book featuring examples of activities from Sunshine Week 2005 and new ideas for 2006.

Freedom Forum

First Amendment Center

Coalition of Journalists for Open Government

Student Press Law Center

National Security Archive

American Library Association

American Society of Newspaper Editors

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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