Each year, leading experts on open government contribute opinion columns that are published by media outlets around the nation.
In 2014, Sunshine Week will again offer intelligent, insightful and enlightening commentary on transparency issues. Check back to this page, which will be updated as material comes in.
Please note: Any participant may republish any or all of the work offered here without charge, but it may be used only during Sunshine Week, March 16-22, 2014, unless permission is otherwise granted by the author. For hi-res images of the authors, click on their photo on the page with the full version of their columns.
Also, please note that the writing below represents the opinions of the authors, not Sunshine Week or its sponsors.
“Celebrate the Sunshine!” by Kathi Bearden, Board President, New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, and Former Publisher, the Hobbs-News: Our country’s history has proven on more than one occasion that secrecy always makes problems worse and erodes public confidence in government. Secrecy is the hallmark of a totalitarian society, not a democracy. Secrecy serves only special interests and not the citizens.
“AP: In rare move, Veterans Affairs Department concludes FOIA overpowers HIPPA,” by Ted Bridis, Investigative News Editor, The Associated Press: News organizations regularly encounter government agencies and other organizations that profess they are unable to provide important information in the public’s interest because of restrictions placed on them under the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HIPAA is the 1996 law that provides federal protections for individually identifiable health information held by covered entities and their business associates. But as many reporters and others know, the law is routinely misapplied and misconstrued to withhold health-related information even when it can be released.
“The problem with claiming a ‘witness safety’ exception to the First Amendment,” by Andrew Cohen, Contributing editor at The Atlantic, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News: The concept of a public trial is at the heart of the Bill of Rights. It’s right there in the Sixth Amendment, right next to the part about impartial juries. It’s right there in the First Amendment, too, right there in the part about the freedom of the press. And yet, our public trials are often not nearly as public as we think.
“President, other government leaders, should end spin-control culture,” by Angela Greiling Keane, 2013 National Press Club president, and David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and president of the Society of Professional Journalists: Agencies at all levels, through aggressive and manipulative tactics, are increasingly controlling what information the public receives, threatening the very foundation of democracy…. Growing message management by the government is something that concerns anyone who cares about holding elected officials accountable. The examples are too numerous to ignore.
“How to use FOIA laws to find stories, deepen sourcing,” by Emily Grannis, Jack Nelson FOI Legal Fellow, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: Freedom of information laws are invaluable resources to reporters covering any beat. The laws provide access to a wide range of government documents, from budgets to emails, and contracts to crime reports.
NEW: “Public Records Geek will engage in tug-of-war, when necessary,” by Kristen Hare, Online Reporter, The Poynter Institute: [Kelly] Hinchcliffe, now an investigative reporter with WRAL.com in Raleigh, N.C., still plays tug-of-war for public records, when necessary. Her blog, Public Records Geek, shares those stories.
“Agencies Must Update FOIA Regulations,” by Lauren Harper, Research Assistant, FOIA Advocacy and Open Government, National Security Archive: This Sunshine Week, the National Security Archive is reporting that 50 out of 101 agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations since the OPEN Government Act of 2007. Even fewer have updated since President Obama committed to improving the FOIA in 2009. One, the Federal Trade Commission, hasn’t updated its regulations since 1975! Luckily, the House of Representatives and the White House are, belatedly, taking up the case.
“The Menace of Overclassification,” by Nate Jones, FOIA Coordinator, National Security Archive: Last month, Director of US National Intelligence James Clapper got a lot of people’s attention when he conceded the American people should have been told that the National Security Agency was tracking their calls. “Had we been transparent about this from the outset…we wouldn’t have had the problem we had.” This striking remark exposes another dirty little secret: there are trillions of other improperly classified records that could harmlessly be revealed.
“In Lieu of Leaks, FOIA is a Journalist’s Most Powerful Tool,” by Jason Leopold, Investigative Reporter: A few years ago, I met a longtime source at a local coffee shop in Los Angeles. He said he needed to break some news to me. I thought it was going to be something juicy. Perhaps he was ready to share some inside information about drones or surveillance or Guantanamo, topics that I report on. Nope. My source called the meeting to tell me he would no longer spill any secrets to me. He was very worried that the Obama administration’s crackdown on leaks and leakers could result in his arrest and prosecution. I could see the fear in his eyes.
NEW: “Show Us the Money: The Pentagon’s Foreign Aid Budget Rivals Sate Department’s in Dollars, Not in Transparency,” by Lora Lumpe, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations: But, unlike the State Department, the Pentagon does not have to provide any accounting of how and where it spends money on foreign military assistance. The Pentagon doles out its assistance with little coherence and even less public scrutiny. This makes it difficult if not impossible for Congress to know how much taxpayer money is being spent on foreign armies and police units.
“Citizens Entitled to Timely Access to Information About Money in Politics,” by Lisa Rosenberg, Government Affairs Consultant, Sunlight Foundation: In the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision likely to be announced soon, the Supreme Court is expected to strike down the long-standing cap on total contributions individuals may give to federal candidates and political parties, permitting the unseemly spectacle of a single donor contributing more than $3.5 million to one party during an election cycle. This Sunshine Week, as we consider the vital importance of the public’s right to know, we should put pressure on our elected officials to ensure we all have access to who’s funding and influencing our elections.
“Time to ask PA candidates where they stand on open government,” by Susan Schwartz, Legislative Committee Chair, Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition; Project Sunshine Chair, Society of Professional Journalists; and Reporter, the Press Enterprise, Columbia County: Too many politicians think they can get away with chipping away the public’s ability to keep an eye on government because they don’t believe regular citizens care. This is the time to show them that what your government does matters to you. Election season is one time you can be sure they’ll be listening.
“Put the Public Back in Public Information,” by Emily Shaw, National Policy Manager, Sunlight Foundation: When we ask that public data be made regularly available on a website, we don’t have to wait for responses to our requests to find out about government activities. We can find out about decisions made in our name, right on our own computers. We can find out about upcoming government committee meetings on our own phones. We can download information that lets us compare existing and past government behavior. We can evaluate the impact of different kinds of decisions across governmental units.
“Celebrate a Century of Sunlight,” by By Christian Trejbal, Writer, Opinion in a Pinch, and Open Government Chair, Association of Opinion Journalists: On Dec. 20, 1913, Harper’s Weekly published “What Publicity Can Do” by Louis Brandeis. In it, he painted an image of transparency that still captures the imagination. “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman,” he wrote.
“Transparency: Not Republican, Not Democrat,” by Jim Zachary, Director, Transparency Project of Georgia and Tennessee Transparency Project: Openness in government is not a liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Independent, TEA party or Libertarian issue. The importance of transparency in local, state and federal government should transcend parties and political ideologies.
“Out of focus,” by Carlos Rodriguez, opinion editor, The Brownsville Herald: President Obama has it backwards. During his 2008 campaign for the presidency, Obama promised his administration would be the most transparent in history. Little did we know that the transparency would be in our own lives rather than the workings of government.