Op-Ed: Let’s Celebrate — and Protect — Openness

If there is one time of year when all Floridians can feel especially proud of their state, it’s Sunshine Week.

A national effort, it starts today and puts our state on the map as one of the most rigorous defenders of a government that’s not only “of, for and by” the people, but also open to the public.

Sunshine Week was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and has been celebrated every March since. But it really began here in the Sunshine state in 2002 when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors created Sunshine Sunday in response to efforts in the Legislature to dilute the state’s public records laws.

Today, Sunshine Sunday, a perfect time to realize the benefits of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

As a reader of the Tallahassee Democrat in print or online, you benefit from open government every time you read our coverage of a public meeting. Or our reporting from a major trial (the Democrat successfully fought efforts to close pre-trial hearings and seal motions in the Gary Hilton murder case). Or our investigation of some government body or official (the Democrat created a database from public records to uncover how your city and county commissioners were using discretionary spending).

But you don’t necessarily need a press card to take advantage of open government.

In a 1977 case, the Florida Supreme Court said: “Freedom of the Press is not, and has never been, a private property right granted to those who own the news media. It is a cherished and almost sacred right of each citizen to be informed about current events, on a timely basis, so each can exercise his discretion in determining the destiny and security of himself, other people, and the Nation.”

While open government is to be celebrated, it also must be constantly defended.

This year alone, the Florida Legislature is considering bills that would expand public records exemptions for information identifying donors to a publicly owned performing arts center; for certain information made available to the Office of Financial Regulation by a state or federal regulatory, administrative or criminal justice agency; and for proposals and counterproposals between a public airport and a nongovernmental entity regarding the sale or use of airport land or facilities.

That’s to name just a few — and each year there are more efforts to keep conduct certain aspects of government in the dark, or at least the shadows.

For instance, a bill has reemerged this year (HB 89/SB 914) that would let governments post legally required public notices on websites alone, rather than requiring them to be in general circulation newspapers. This is a major issue for the newspaper industry, but it should be for you, as well. It whittles down the requirement to broadly disseminate information to a requirement merely to make it available to those who know where and when to look for it somewhere, perchance, on the internet.

There are bills that advance the cause of open government, too. These  include efforts to expand the public’s right to speak before government agencies, and a repeal of some exemptions relating to legislative records.

Expanding the openness of government is to be celebrated, on this Sunshine Sunday — or, really, any day of the year.