Sunshine Week time to celebrate openness, knowledge

Posted 3/15/19

It’s Sunshine Week across North Carolina and the nation. And no, that doesn’t signify an end to winter and the rains that have hammered our region since the fall — although we can always hope …

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Sunshine Week time to celebrate openness, knowledge

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Posted

It’s Sunshine Week across North Carolina and the nation. And no, that doesn’t signify an end to winter and the rains that have hammered our region since the fall — although we can always hope — but rather, it’s a week to focus on educating the public about the importance of open, transparent government and the problems inherent when government cloaks itself in excessive, unnecessary secrecy.

Government functions best when it operates without secrets. That’s no secret, obviously. But without champions of freedom of information (including a free press and others who ask lots of questions) and elected officials working within government to make transparency a real thing, it’s difficult to make happen.

It certainly doesn’t happen by osmosis.

Fortunately, North Carolina is known as a “sunshine” state, a place where state law more often than not protects the public’s right to know. Our open meetings and public records laws are pretty strong. The public and the press both have a history of working collaboratively with key First Amendment and open government allies in local and state government to protect the right we all have to know – to know what government is doing, to know how tax dollars are spent, to have access to documents and meetings and to ask (and get answers to) questions about government function, deliberation and decisions.

We should all hope it stays that way.

It can, but only if we all care about it. For most people, Sunshine Week comes and goes with little fanfare. What’s worse is that we live in an increasingly polarized culture, where battle lines are drawn on social media, where a president declares a free press “the enemy of the people,” where lies and falsehoods are proffered up by elected officials of all stripes (and shared and re-tweeted blindly) and then swallowed whole by a gullible citizenry.

Think about it: that’s no way to build community and improve a society.

The point is, we shouldn’t take openness and transparency for granted. Nor should we trust without verification every claim made by anyone in government. Thanks to the general public’s increased use of and reliance upon social media for news and information, and a declining interest in real government function, it’s never been easier to pull the wool over the public’s collective eye.

Those of us in the newspaper business like to draw our readers’ attention to Sunshine Week and open government issues, particularly around the time of National Freedom of Information Day (May 16), which coincides with James Madison’s birthday. Madison, a founding father, was the co-author of The Federalist Papers and is known as the “Father of the Constitution,” and he’d certainly cringe at some of the ideas being bandied about by politicians these days.

But he’d also remind us that the people, not the government, possess “absolute sovereignty.”

An important reminder, this week and every week.

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