Op-Ed: An exercise in freedom

This week journalists are promoting Sunshine Week in a campaign to spread the word about the importance of open government and the freedom of information.

The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create numerous exemptions to the state’s public records law.

The society estimated that 300 exemptions to open government laws were defeated in the legislative sessions that followed its three Sunshine Sundays because of the increased public and legislative awareness that resulted from the Sunshine Sunday coverage.

Several states followed in Florida’s lead, and with a grant, the American Society of News Editors launched Sunshine Week in 2002, coinciding with National Freedom of Information Day and James Madison’s Birthday on March 16.

Journalists for media organizations large and small are vigilant in protecting the public’s right to know, whether it’s through going to court to obtain access to public records or filing complaints about violations of open government laws. Sometimes, these efforts are time-consuming and costly, but journalists recognize that secrecy in government at all levels is an anathema to democracy, and they will go to great lengths to expose it – whether through investigative reporting or commentary or day-to-day coverage of events.

In Florida, one of the strongest advocates of open government is the First Amendment Foundation, established in 1984 by media organizations to ensure that progress continues in free speech, free press and open government.

The foundation provides education, training, legal aid and information services. Tampa Bay Newspapers has supported its efforts, such as through co-sponsoring a seminar on open government and public records laws.

Indeed, Florida has come a long way in recent decades since the days when elected officials could meet secretly behind closed doors without concern about being held accountable for their decisions. Great strides have been made in protecting public access to records, too, though attempts continue to create more exemptions to the public records law.

Shedding light on government activities has fostered better understanding of the decision-making process undertaken by public officials. It also led to fines levied against officials who circumvent the law in many ways.

Sunshine Week, in a sense, is a celebration of freedom. To learn more about it, visit sunshineweek.org.