Media heroes defend open government

Freedom New Mexico

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees our freedoms of speech, religion, the press, assembly and to take grievances to government officials.

It’s the No. 1 item in our Bill of Rights, and in priority, in the minds of many Americans.

And yet, Texas’ State Board of Education on Thursday voted to restrict students’ knowledge of this key assertion of our personal freedoms. Board members who voted against it particularly didn’t want students to learn that freedom of religion prevents the government from favoring one religion over others.

At the same time, public officials across the nation have filed lawsuits seeking to overturn laws that require public knowledge of their decisions. The officials want to be able to meet and decide public policy behind closed doors.

This is the atmosphere in which we celebrate Sunshine Week, a commemoration of individuals’ right to know what their government officials are doing and how they are using taxpayers’ money.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors started Sunshine Week in 2005 to highlight the need to keep the light of public knowledge shining on government officials. The obvious goal of such knowledge is to maintain honesty and accountability.

Eastern New Mexico residents know all too well that many officials prefer not to be accountable. They and their peers across the country, like so many cockroaches, seek to scurry away from the light and do their deeds under cover of darkness.

It’s a problem across the country.

An Arizona school district recently sued to try to prevent the public from requesting public information such as budgets.

Several state legislatures have tried to pass laws blocking access to police records, including 911 tapes, even though such records repeatedly are used to bring about changes ranging from the placement of stop signs to changes in emergency procedures — not to mention the many times those records have exposed officials who broke the law or sought special dispensation when caught driving drunk or committing other improper acts.

News media take seriously their roles of watchdog and public informant. But many of the valuable uses of public information laws have been made by private residents and community groups who seek to protect taxpayers from malfeasance, and their neighbors from public dangers.

The work of these people, especially in the face of opposition by public officials and their employees, is nothing short of heroic. And these are the people that this year’s Sunshine Week seeks to honor.

“There are a lot of unsung heroes in the battle for freedom of information, and we plan to use … Sunshine Week to bring attention to those who have fought tirelessly for open government,” ASNE President Marty Kaiser said recently.

Everyone should be willing to defend our right to continue shining the light of scrutiny on our government offices. Many resources exist to help people learn about public information and open meetings laws. They include the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office (www.nmag.gov); New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (www.nmfog.org); and Sunshine Week organizers (www.sunshineweek.org).

Knowledge of open government, and the use of that knowledge, has saved untold lives and dollars — often by helping officials eliminate dangers or work more efficiently, sometimes by forcing officials to stop or forgo actions that would violate the law.

These are some of the true heroes of our daily lives.