March 11-17 is Sunshine Week, an “annual nationwide celebration of access to public information,” and a fitting way to follow last week’s RTDNF First Amendment Awards.
The motto of Sunshine Week, spearheaded by ASNE and RCFP, is “Your right to know.” It is the public’s right to know where taxpayer money is going, how the public’s business is being conducted, and what actions elected officials are taking.
And it is journalists' constitutionally-guaranteed duty to keep the public informed.
A critical way to start this Sunshine Week is to know your reporting rights under the federal Freedom of Information Act and its various state counterparts.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy – or possible – to access information of vital public concern.
RTDNA and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, tally incidents of denial of access and prior restraint.
We’ve long advocated for cameras in courts federally and at the state level, with mixed success, as even journalists in the 34 states whose transparency laws allow for cameras still struggle for access due to seemingly arbitrary exceptions and loopholes.
Governments are constantly finding new ways to deny – or effectively deny – records requests by abusing FOIA exceptions, subjecting requesters to high costs and delays, and even suing requesters to delay records releases and impose additional costs on information seekers.
In recent weeks, RTDNA and our Voice of the First Amendment Task Force has called out several violations of government transparency, from the Missouri legislature closing proceedings investigating its governor, the Georgia State Senate press office threatening to revoke press credentials following a reporter question of a member, and Utah restricting reporters on its House floor.
Just today, RTDNA noted an especially egregious example of attempting to stifle reporting: Kentucky State Police Troop 10 is attempting to compel journalists to delay their reporting until after the agency publishes official press releases.
This isn’t the first time officials have given an illusion of transparency by controlling the flow of information or even publishing “alternative news” to promote their version of events.
And government transparency doesn’t seem to be improving. According to an Associated Press analysis, “The federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often last year than at any point in the past decade,” with 78 percent of requests yielding either nothing or censored documents.
When records are released, they come too often after court rulings, such as a recent case in which the Georgia Supreme Court voided a gag order in a high-profile murder case. Journalists shouldn’t have to sue for access to information which should be public, but FOIA fees and legal costs are making up increasingly significant portions of newsroom budgets.
Still, public calls for transparency can be effective, such as the recent veto by the governor of Washington of a bill that would have exempted lawmakers from open records, an exemption that frustrates reporters and inhibits the public’s right to know in states like California.
While journalists are out there pursuing their constitutionally-guaranteed duty, RTDNA is fighting for your right to do so by pushing for more open government and challenging undue restrictions during Sunshine Week and every week.