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Sunshine Week 2012

Sunshine Week 2012

Sunshine Week was created by journalists. But it’s not just for the press.

It’s also for the public.

This week, journalists around the country are participating in the national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of open government and freedom of information. But freedom of information is a year-round pledge. American journalists promote open government every day, with every story about a city or county council meeting, every editorial and, in truth, with every day’s publication and every day’s broadcast.

Participants in Sunshine Week include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and anyone or any organization interested in protecting, promoting and increasing the public’s right to know.

It began in 2002 in Florida, when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create dozens of new exemptions to the state’s public records law.

According to FSNE, some 300 exemptions to open government laws were defeated in the legislative sessions that followed its three Sunshine Sundays. But it wasn’t due solely to the organization’s efforts or even those of newspapers around the state that wrote about the issue. Increased public and legislative awareness contributed as more people read the state’s newspapers’ Sunshine Sunday reports and commentary — and cared about what they read.

After the success of Sunshine Sunday in Florida, the effort went nationwide. With a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, an organization that still supports the observance, Sunshine Week was launched by the nonpartisan, nonprofit American Society of News Editors in March 2005. Sunshine Week is celebrated in mid-March to coincide with James Madison’s birthday on March 16.

Why Madison? James Madison, prompted by Thomas Jefferson, the most vocal proponent of free speech in his time, proposed the Bill of Rights, leading off with the one we hold dear and without which, America could not exist as we know it. And in his speeches after the publication of the U.S. Constitution, Madison often reiterated his dedication to the cause:

“Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people … is favorable to liberty.— National Gazette, 1791

“Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.” — Public Opinion, December 19, 1791

To promote freedom of information is a journalist’s duty. But people must play their role in the actions that affect their communities, learning what kinds of information they have a right to see, where to get it, how to get it and what to do if someone tries to keep if from them.

Through open government laws, the public can empower itself to play an active role in day-to-day government at every level. If information is truly to be power, that information must be accessible but, more important, that information must be accessed. It is only through attention to government operations and curiosity about the why and how on the part of journalists and the public that lives are made better and communities are made stronger.