Let the Sun Shine In: Promote Open Government During Sunshine Week 2010
This week, March 14-20, is Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week is "a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know" (from the website). This nonpartisan effort is basically about your right to know what your government does and to be informed. Being informed about what the government does at the local, state, and federal levels is a way to hold the government accountable for its actions. The initiative is lead by the American Society of News Editors. You may be thinking about the government collecting information with the upcoming U.S. Census. We will be writing about the census in an upcoming post. However, you have a right to learn about what information the government collects and what it is used for. For the Census, you can already find a lot of that information on their website (http://www.census.gov/). However, not all government agencies make it as easy to find information about their activities. The main law that deals with the people's right to learn about the activities of the government is the Freedom of Information Act:
"The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law ensuring public access to U.S. government records. FOIA carries a presumption of disclosure; the burden is on the government - not the public - to substantiate why information may not be released. Upon written request, agencies of the United States government are required to disclose those records, unless they can be lawfully withheld from disclosure under one of nine specific exemptions in the FOIA. This right of access is ultimately enforceable in federal court" (from the National Security Archive at George Washington University).In addition, states and municipalities usually have some form of sunshine or open records laws. In essence, the government works for the people. Thus, they should make its records open to citizens for inspection. Yes, there are some exceptions, such as issues of national security (you can read about exemptions in the link above about the FOIA), but overall, the government should aim to be as open as possible. It's how a democracy works. So, where can you learn more?
- Start with the website for Sunshine Week. You can find news items that discuss freedom of information and government disclosure, resources, and ideas for participating.
- The Sunlight Foundation is a Washington D.C.-based think tank that works to make government more transparent and accountable. If you wish to follow their activities and learn more, they do have a blog; you could add it to a feed reader. By the way, if you use Facebook, the Sunlight Foundation has its own FB page; you might want to become a fan.
- The American Society of News Editors leads the effort for Sunshine Week. They are also a good resource for open access issues.
- The Society of Professional Journalists also has some information on Sunshine week here.
- The National Security Archive, which is "an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University, the Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Archive also serves as a repository of government records on a wide range of topics pertaining to the national security, foreign, intelligence, and economic policies of the United States" (from the website).
- In Texas, you may be interested in the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. They offer tips and advice as well as various educational programs.
- Norm Eisen, President Obama's Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, issued a statement for Sunshine Week. You can find it at the White House blog here. The statement includes various links to memos and initiatives the Obama Administration has taken in terms of government transparency.
- President Obama also issued a brief statement on Sunshine Week, which you can read here.
- The Free Government Information blog has a post about Sunshine Week that includes some examples of what libraries are doing to promote the event and help educate their patrons. The blog is maintained by a group of librarians "to raise public awareness of the importance of government information and create a community with various stakeholders to facilitate an open and critical dialogue" (from the blog's About page).
- The Electronic Privacy Foundation Center (EPIC) has put together a "Freedom of Information Act Gallery 2010." EPIC "is a public interest research center in Washington, D.C. It was established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the First Amendment, and constitutional values" (from their website). The gallery highlights some of the documents they have obtained through the year using tools like the FOIA.
- You may also be interested in the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). David Sobel, their Senior Counsel at EFF's Washington, DC office, issued a statement about Sunshine Week providing some analysis. In addition to working to protect your privacy rights online, the EFF has an FOIA project. This includes a database of documents they have obtained with FOIA requests that you can search. "These [documents] shed light on controversial government surveillance programs, lobbying practices, and intellectual property initiatives. You can use the EFF FOIA Search Engine below to search and examine the documents' contents."