Students give hope for free speech

By Bob Johnson: Guest columnist

“Transparent” is the word my parents used when, as a young kid, I told a whopper to try to talk my way out of trouble. Maybe yours did, too.

I learned from that. I discovered that the primary definition of transparent is “transmitting light so that objects and images can be seen as if there were no intervening materials.” Or letting the sunshine in.

That is also a good definition of open government: letting light shine through official fog so the public, meaning everybody, can see what elected servants are doing to protect the public and make rules for the public — or what they are doing just to protect their power.

That’s why the 13 founding colonies demanded the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights before they finally ratified the Constitution and made it the supreme law of our country, joined later by companions in state constitutions. The public was right to do that, and we still celebrate James Madison for his leadership in opening the government.

The fact is that our parents were right, too. Most whoppers are transparent.

Do you think there’s a need to refuse habeas corpus for prisoners who might possibly be terrorists or to conduct warrantless wiretaps, look at your library record or look at the record of videos you rent? Do you think that’s the way to find American terrorists?

Do you believe legislative claims that the best place to make decisions is in the dark?

Or are these whoppers, transparent clutches at power?

This must be the sort of thing Justice Louis Brandeis thought about — or foresaw — 60 years ago when he wrote, “Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

He also got it right when he wrote, “The most important political office is that of the American citizen.”

Last week was Sunshine Week — an annual effort to let those who hold the most important political office, the citizens, see clearly what their servants, their elected and appointed officials, are doing in their name.

If that’s hard on officials’ egos or their sense of power, too bad. It’s the right of every American to know.

When a legislator tells you that opening conference committees to reconcile differences in bills passed by House and Senate would just drive decision-making deeper into the dark, smile and think of it as a commentary on ethics.

Besides the federal and state constitutions, the rights of New Mexicans are protected by sunshine laws called the Open Meetings Act, Inspection of Public Records Act and Arrest Records Information Act — and by non-profit organizations like New Mexico Foundation for Open Government monitoring compliance with the laws and working to improve them.

The root source of sunshine is public demand for light on what its officials are doing — and public understanding of that historic right.

A couple of years ago a survey conducted by the John and James Knight Foundation found that American teenagers think the First Amendment guarantees too many rights. The survey included more than 10,000 students — and three out of four of those kids didn’t know the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, speech, press and peaceable assembly. Those are too many rights?

Did their parents and teachers teach them the meaning of transparency and sunshine? And their rights?

The survey suggested that students favor First Amendment freedoms if taught about them. NMFOG tries to help by focusing on openness at all levels of government and by conducting the annual Gerald Crawford First Amendment Essay Contest for high school students throughout the state.

The essays have shown that some students have profound perception of their rights. The more they know the better citizens they will be. And when they’re grown, those boys and girls should see through whoppers as they let the sun shine in.

Bob Johnson is executive director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Contact him at: nmfog@aol.com