Each year, the full calendar week in which March 16 falls — i.e., this week — is observed in our industry as Sunshine Week, as it has been since the American Society of Newspaper Editors first so designated the observance in 2005.
The timing of this annual reminder is not random. It coincides with the birthday of James Madison, one of the nation’s founders, our third president and one of our chief constitutional architects. Among his many enduring legacies is this observation, from a speech in Virginia in 1788:
“Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
Sadly, as modes of information — and means of suppressing or distorting it — have become more sophisticated, there have almost certainly been more “instances of abridgement” in the less than two and a half centuries since Madison spoke those words than in the millennia before.
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American citizens don’t have to be told that open government is supposed to be our birthright. But it doesn’t do our civic health any harm to have a refresher on our responsibilities — journalistic as well as civic — to hold officials accountable.
Those “silent encroachments” can be as big and consequential as Watergate, or as banal and obnoxious as a waiver on public reporting deadlines for college athletic departments because a coach thinks it will help his team compete with Alabama. It’s the closed-door elimination of a whistleblower protection rule that held federal nuclear contractors legally accountable for retaliation against those who report waste, fraud or public safety violations.
Or as Benita Dodd of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation reported in a recent op-ed, it’s an accountability gap in civil asset forfeiture law — already a constitutional black hole almost by definition — that lets agencies ignore (supposed) reporting requirements because there are no consequences in the law for disdaining them.
Or maybe it’s a well-intentioned but potentially flawed bill for electronic filing of court records, cited on the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s “Legislative Watch” list. As written, it includes loopholes that could impede, rather than improve, public access. (A complete handbook of Georgia Sunshine laws is available online at the Georgia Press Association website, gapress.org.)
Sunshine Week might be a news organization observance, but it’s about a core American principle important to every citizen. That’s truer now than it has ever been, given the proliferating technologies of communication, especially social media. We don’t have to look any farther than the increasing use of police body cameras that protect the law enforcement officers whose lives are on the line as well as the people involved in police encounters. Public access to such evidence can be critical.
This is one week out of 52 to celebrate principles laid down for us in the late 18th century. They matter at least as much in the early 21st.